Barbiturates are central nervous system depressants that are used as sedatives, hypnotics, anesthetics and anticonvulsants. However, prolonged use of the drugs produces physical dependence, and the drugs have a high abuse liability. The gamma-aminobutyric acidA (GABAA) receptor is one of barbiturates' main sites of action, and therefore it is thought to play a pivotal role in the development of tolerance to and dependence on barbiturates. Recent advances in the study of the GABAA receptor/chloride channel complex allow us to examine possible mechanisms that underlie barbiturate tolerance/dependence in a new light. In this minireview, we mainly focus on molecular and cellular aspects of the action of barbiturates and the possible mechanisms that contribute to development of tolerance to and dependence on barbiturates.