Eukaryotic gene expression is orchestrated on a genome-wide scale through several post-transcriptional mechanisms. Of these, alternative pre-mRNA splicing expands the proteome diversity and modulates mRNA stability through downstream RNA quality control (QC) pathways including nonsense-mediated decay (NMD) of mRNAs containing premature termination codons and nuclear retention and elimination (NRE) of intron-containing transcripts. Although originally identified as mechanisms for eliminating aberrant transcripts, a growing body of evidence suggests that NMD and NRE coupled with deliberate changes in pre-mRNA splicing patterns are also used in a number of biological contexts for deterministic control of gene expression. Here we review recent studies elucidating molecular mechanisms and biological significance of these gene regulation strategies with a specific focus on their roles in nervous system development and physiology. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled ‘RNA and splicing regulation in neurodegeneration’.