Kainate receptors form a family of ionotropic glutamate receptors that appear to play a special role in the regulation of the activity of synaptic networks. This review first describes briefly the molecular and pharmacological properties of native and recombinant kainate receptors. It then attempts to outline the general principles that appear to govern the function of kainate receptors in the activity of synaptic networks under physiological conditions. It subsequently describes the way that kainate receptors are involved in synaptic integration, synaptic plasticity, the regulation of neurotransmitter release and the control of neuronal excitability, and the manner in which they might play an important role in synaptogenesis and synaptic maturation. These functions require the proper subcellular localization of kainate receptors in specific functional domains of the neuron, necessitating complex cellular and molecular trafficking events. We show that our comprehension of these mechanisms is just starting to emerge. Finally, this review presents evidence that implicates kainate receptors in pathophysiological conditions such as epilepsy, excitotoxicity and pain, and that shows that these receptors represent promising therapeutic targets.