Two decades have passed since the first report of the cloning of a kainate-type glutamate receptor (KAR) subunit. The intervening years have seen a rapid growth in our understanding of the biophysical properties and function of KARs in the brain. This research has led to an appreciation that KARs play very distinct roles at synapses relative to other members of the glutamate-gated ion channel receptor family, despite structural and functional commonalities. The surprisingly diverse and complex nature of KAR signaling underlies their unique impact upon neuronal networks through their direct and indirect effects on synaptic transmission, and their prominent role in regulating cell excitability. This review pieces together highlights from the two decades of research subsequent to the cloning of the first subunit, and provides an overview of our current understanding of the role of KARs in the CNS and their potential importance to neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders.
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