Understanding the spatio-temporal features of the information processing occurring in any complex neural structure requires the monitoring and analysis of the activity in populations of neurons. Electrophysiological and other mapping techniques have provided important insights into the function of neural circuits and neural populations in many systems. However, there remain limitations with these approaches. Therefore, complementary techniques which permit the monitoring of the spatio-temporal activity in neuronal populations are of continued interest. One promising approach to monitor the electrical activity in populations of neurons or on multiple sites of a single neuron is with voltage-sensitive dyes coupled with optical recording techniques. This review concentrates on the use of voltage-sensitive dyes and optical imaging as tools to study the activity in neuronal populations in the central nervous system. Focusing on 'fast' voltage-sensitive dyes first, several technical issues and developments in optical imaging will be reviewed. These will include more recent developments in voltage-sensitive dyes as well as newer developments in optical recording technology. Second, studies using voltage-sensitive dyes to investigate information processing questions in the central nervous system and in the invertebrate nervous system will be reviewed. Some emphasis will be placed on the cerebellum, but the major goal is to survey how voltage-sensitive dyes and optical recordings have been utilized in the central nervous system. The review will include optical studies on the visual, auditory, olfactory, somatosensory, auditory, hippocampal and brainstem systems, as well as single cell studies addressing information processing questions. Discussion of the intrinsic optical signals is also included. The review attempts to show how voltage-sensitive dyes and optical recordings can be used to obtain high spatial and temporal resolution monitoring of neuronal activity.