The glycine receptor chloride channel (GlyR) is a member of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor family of ligand-gated ion channels. Functional receptors of this family comprise five subunits and are important targets for neuroactive drugs. The GlyR is best known for mediating inhibitory neurotransmission in the spinal cord and brain stem, although recent evidence suggests it may also have other physiological roles, including excitatory neurotransmission in embryonic neurons. To date, four alpha-subunits (alpha1 to alpha4) and one beta-subunit have been identified. The differential expression of subunits underlies a diversity in GlyR pharmacology. A developmental switch from alpha2 to alpha1beta is completed by around postnatal day 20 in the rat. The beta-subunit is responsible for anchoring GlyRs to the subsynaptic cytoskeleton via the cytoplasmic protein gephyrin. The last few years have seen a surge in interest in these receptors. Consequently, a wealth of information has recently emerged concerning GlyR molecular structure and function. Most of the information has been obtained from homomeric alpha1 GlyRs, with the roles of the other subunits receiving relatively little attention. Heritable mutations to human GlyR genes give rise to a rare neurological disorder, hyperekplexia (or startle disease). Similar syndromes also occur in other species. A rapidly growing list of compounds has been shown to exert potent modulatory effects on this receptor. Since GlyRs are involved in motor reflex circuits of the spinal cord and provide inhibitory synapses onto pain sensory neurons, these agents may provide lead compounds for the development of muscle relaxant and peripheral analgesic drugs.