As a chemical transmitter in the mammalian central nervous system, nitric oxide (NO) is still thought a bit of an oddity, yet this role extends back to the beginnings of the evolution of the nervous system, predating many of the more familiar neurotransmitters. During the 20 years since it became known, evidence has accumulated for NO subserving an increasing number of functions in the mammalian central nervous system, as anticipated from the wide distribution of its synthetic and signal transduction machinery within it. This review attempts to probe beneath those functions and consider the cellular and molecular mechanisms through which NO evokes short- and long-term modifications in neural performance. With any transmitter, understanding its receptors is vital for decoding the language of communication. The receptor proteins specialised to detect NO are coupled to cGMP formation and provide an astonishing degree of amplification of even brief, low amplitude NO signals. Emphasis is given to the diverse ways in which NO receptor activation initiates changes in neuronal excitability and synaptic strength by acting at pre- and/or postsynaptic locations. Signalling to non-neuronal cells and an unexpected line of communication between endothelial cells and brain cells are also covered. Viewed from a mechanistic perspective, NO conforms to many of the rules governing more conventional neurotransmission, particularly of the metabotropic type, but stands out as being more economical and versatile, attributes that presumably account for its spectacular evolutionary success.