Excitatory glutamatergic transmission involves a variety of different receptor types, each with distinct properties and functions. Physiological studies have identified both post- and presynaptic roles for kainate receptors, which are a subtype of the ionotropic glutamate receptors. Kainate receptors contribute to excitatory postsynaptic currents in many regions of the central nervous system including hippocampus, cortex, spinal cord and retina. In some cases, postsynaptic kainate receptors are co-distributed with alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, but there are also synapses where transmission is mediated exclusively by postsynaptic kainate receptors: for example, in the retina at connections made by cones onto off bipolar cells. Modulation of transmitter release by presynaptic kainate receptors can occur at both excitatory and inhibitory synapses. The depolarization of nerve terminals by current flow through ionotropic kainate receptors appears sufficient to account for most examples of presynaptic regulation; however, a number of studies have provided evidence for metabotropic effects on transmitter release that can be initiated by activation of kainate receptors. Recent analysis of knockout mice lacking one or more of the subunits that contribute to kainate receptors, as well as studies with subunit-selective agonists and antagonists, have revealed the important roles that kainate receptors play in short- and long-term synaptic plasticity. This review briefly addresses the properties of kainate receptors and considers in greater detail the physiological analysis of their contributions to synaptic transmission.