Recent studies suggest that excitatory amino acids (EAAs) have a wide variety of physiological and pathophysiological roles during central nervous system (CNS) development. In addition to participating in neuronal signal transduction, EAAs also exert trophic influences affecting neuronal survival, growth and differentiation during restricted developmental periods. EAAs also participate in the development and maintenance of neuronal circuitry and regulate several forms of activity-dependent synaptic plasticity such as LTP and segregation of converging retinal inputs to tectum and visual cortex. Pre- and post-synaptic markers of EAA pathways in brain undergo marked ontogenic changes. These markers are commonly overexpressed during development; periods of overproduction often coincide with times when synaptic plasticity is great and when appropriate neuronal connections are consolidated. The electrophysiological and biochemical properties of EAA receptors also undergo marked ontogenic changes. In addition to these physiological roles of EAAs, overactivation of EAA receptors may initiate a cascade of cellular events which produce neuronal injury and death. There is a unique developmental profile of susceptibility of the brain to excitotoxic injury mediated by activation of each of the EAA receptor subtypes. Overactivation of EAA receptors is implicated in the pathophysiology of brain injury in several clinical disorders to which the developing brain is susceptible, including hypoxia-ischemia, epilepsy, physical trauma and some rare genetic abnormalities of amino acid metabolism. Potential therapeutic approaches may be rationally devised based on recent information about the developmental regulation of EAA receptors and their involvement in the pathogenesis of these disorders.