NMDA receptors are preeminent neurotransmitter-gated channels in the CNS, which respond to glutamate in a manner that integrates multiple external and internal cues. They belong to the ionotropic glutamate receptor family and fulfil unique and crucial roles in neuronal development and function. These roles depend on characteristic response kinetics, which reflect the operation of the receptors. Here, we review biologically salient features of the NMDA receptor signal and its mechanistic origins. Knowledge of distinctive NMDA receptor biophysical properties, their structural determinants and physiological roles is necessary to understand the physiological and neurotoxic actions of glutamate and to design effective therapeutics.