Glutamate mediates most of the excitatory neurotransmission in the mammalian central nervous system by activating ionotropic glutamate receptors. Structural and functional studies of ionotropic glutamate receptors have offered detailed insight into the mechanism by which these integral membrane proteins function. In particular, advances in our understanding of the atomic structure of the agonist-binding domain have provided new opportunities to consider the conformational changes that take place in a functioning ligand-gated ion channel. Several recent studies have turned up important new ideas about the structural determinants of channel activation, deactivation and desensitization of AMPA receptors. Working hypotheses derived from this structural insight offer a rare opportunity to enrich and guide functional studies.