Neuroactive steroids are natural or synthetic steroids that rapidly alter the excitability of neurons by binding to membrane-bound receptors such as those for inhibitory and (or) excitatory neurotransmitters. The best-studied neuroactive steroids are a series of sedative-hypnotic 3 alpha-hydroxy ring A-reduced pregnane steroids that include the major metabolites of progesterone and deoxycorticosterone, 3 alpha-hydroxy-5 alpha-pregnan-20-one (allopregnanolone) and 3 alpha,21-dihydroxy-5 alpha-pregnan-20-one (allotetrahydroDOC), respectively. These 3 alpha-hydroxysteroids do not interact with classical intracellular steroid receptors but bind stereoselectively and with high affinity to receptors for the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in brain, gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA). Biochemical and electrophysiological studies have shown that these steroids markedly augment GABA-activated chloride ion currents in a manner similar (but not identical) to that of anesthetic barbiturates. Several steroids have also been observed to have convulsant or proconvulsant properties, including the synthetic amidine 3 alpha-hydroxy-16-imino-5 beta-17-azaandrostan-11-one (RU5135) and the natural sulfate esters of pregnenolone and dehydroepiandrosterone. Several of these have been shown to be bicuculline or picrotoxin-like GABAA receptor antagonists. Examples of steroids that alter neuronal excitability rapidly by augmenting or inhibiting excitatory amino acid receptor-mediated responses have also been reported. Recently, allopregnanolone and allotetrahydroDOC have also been measured in brain and plasma where their levels have been shown to fluctuate in response to stress and during the estrous and menstrual cycles of rats and humans, respectively. Although the major fraction of allopregnanolone in tissue, including brain, is of adrenal and/or ovarian origin, appreciable levels of allopregnanolone can still be measured in the brains of adrenalectomized and/or oophorectomized animals. Receptor-active neurosteroids may represent an important class of neuromodulators that can rapidly alter central nervous system excitability via novel nongenomic mechanisms.