The basal ganglia are a group of subcortical nuclei involved in a variety of processes including motor, cognitive and mnemonic functions. One of their major roles is to integrate sensorimotor, associative and limbic information in the production of context-dependent behaviours. These roles are exemplified by the clinical manifestations of neurological disorders of the basal ganglia. Recent advances in many fields, including pharmacology, anatomy, physiology and pathophysiology have provided converging data that have led to unifying hypotheses concerning the functional organisation of the basal ganglia in health and disease. The major input to the basal ganglia is derived from the cerebral cortex. Virtually the whole of the cortical mantle projects in a topographic manner onto the striatum, this cortical information is ‘processed’ within the striatum and passed via the so-called direct and indirect pathways to the output nuclei of the basal ganglia, the internal segment of the globus pallidus and the substantia nigra pars reticulata. The basal ganglia influence behaviour by the projections of these output nuclei to the thalamus and thence back to the cortex, or to subcortical ‘premotor’ regions. Recent studies have demonstrated that the organisation of these pathways is more complex than previously suggested. Thus the cortical input to the basal ganglia, in addition to innervating the spiny projection neurons, also innervates GABA interneurons, which in turn provide a feed-forward inhibition of the spiny output neurons. Individual neurons of the globus pallidus innervate basal ganglia output nuclei as well as the subthalamic nucleus and substantia nigra pars compacta. About one quarter of them also innervate the striatum and are in a position to control the output of the striatum powerfully as they preferentially contact GABA interneurons. Neurons of the pallidal complex also provide an anatomical substrate, within the basal ganglia, for the synaptic integration of functionally diverse information derived from the cortex. It is concluded that the essential concept of the direct and indirect pathways of information flow through the basal ganglia remains intact but that the role of the indirect pathway is more complex than previously suggested and that neurons of the globus pallidus are in a position to control the activity of virtually the whole of the basal ganglia.