Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) are pentameric ligand gated ion channels, which are found at the neuromuscular junction and in the central and peripheral nervous systems. The channels can be assembled from fourteen known subunits. The exact combination and function of all the channels are still not determined but in the CNS certain combinations have been identified which appear to modulate the release of specific neurotransmitters. Non-specific nAChR agonists like nicotine and epibatidine, have been shown to have interesting pharmacology but their clinical value is limited by their undesirable side effects. Selective ligands for different receptor subtypes have been reported and these compounds are probably the best tools for determining the function of the subtypes. The expectation is that some receptor subtype selective nAChR ligands will be clinically useful for the treatment of a broad range of CNS disorders. The development of stable cell lines functionally expressing specific combinations of subunits has greatly improved our understanding of ligand specificity. There have also been advances in the modelling of the ligand binding site, thanks to the discovery of a homologous snail ACh binding protein the X-ray structure of which was determined in 2001. These techniques should lead to rapid advances in the development of truly subtype selective ligands. In this review we describe recent progress in the area and describe the first 1000 fold selective low molecular weight ligands from the AstraZeneca group. We also comment on the first subtype specific channel modulators.