Dual-specificity tyrosine phosphorylation-regulated kinase 1A (DYRK1A) is a protein kinase with diverse functions in neuronal development and adult brain physiology. Higher than normal levels of DYRK1A are associated with the pathology of neurodegenerative diseases and have been implicated in some neurobiological alterations of Down syndrome, such as mental retardation. It is therefore important to understand the molecular mechanisms that control the activity of DYRK1A. Here we review the current knowledge about the initial self-activation of DYRK1A by tyrosine autophosphorylation and propose that this mechanism presents an ancestral feature of the CMGC group of kinases. However, tyrosine phosphorylation does not appear to regulate the enzymatic activity of DYRK1A. Control of DYRK1A may take place on the level of gene expression, interaction with regulatory proteins and regulated nuclear translocation. Finally, we compare the properties of small molecule inhibitors that target DYRK1A and evaluate their potential application and limitations. The β-carboline alkaloid harmine is currently the most selective and potent inhibitor of DYRK1A and has proven very useful in cellular assays.