Junctional adhesion molecules (JAMs) of the immunoglobulin superfamily are important in the control of vascular permeability and leukocyte transmigration across endothelial-cell surfaces, by engaging in homophilic, heterophilic and lateral interactions. Through their localization on the endothelial-cell surface and expression by platelets, JAMs contribute to adhesive interactions with circulating leukocytes and platelets. Antibody-blocking studies and studies using genetically modified mice have implicated these functions of JAMs in the regulation of leukocyte recruitment to sites of inflammation and ischaemia-reperfusion injury, in growth-factor-mediated angiogenesis, atherogenesis and neointima formation. The comparison of different JAM-family members and animal models, however, shows that the picture remains rather complex. This Review summarizes recent progress and future directions in understanding the role of JAMs as 'gate keepers' in inflammation and vascular pathology.