Binding affinities of a series of 44 beta-carbolines with various substituents at the 3-, 4-, 6- and 7-positions are reported at 5 distinct recombinant GABAA/benzodiazepine receptor (BzR) subtypes [alpha x beta 3 gamma 2 (x = 1-3, 5, 6)]. Many of these ligands displayed better selectivity for the alpha 1 containing GABAA isoform. The most selective BCCT 2 and SPH 195 (17) displayed potent affinity (Ki = 0.72 and 7.2 nM for the alpha 1 beta 3 gamma 2 receptor subtype, respectively) and an overall selectivity of 20 and 23 fold, respectively, for the alpha 1 beta 3 gamma 2 receptor subtype. These are the most selective ligands in vitro for the alpha 1 containing GABAA/Bz receptor isoform reported to date to our knowledge. QSAR studies of these ligands for each receptor subtype have been carried out via a Comparative Molecular Field Analysis (CoMFA) and an included volume analysis. Geometries and charge distributions of these ligands have been optimized using ab initio methods (J. Med. Chem., 1992, 35, 4001-4010). Active conformations of flexible 3-alkoxylated beta-carbolines have been examined via a CoMFA approach. QSAR studies via CoMFA support the previous hypothesis that beta-carbolines with different intrinsic activities may follow an alternative alignment rule when they bind into the pharmacophore/receptor site of the BzR. Examination of binding affinities of beta-carbolines by this modeling strategy has established some of the differences, in particular, topologic differences between the lipophilic pockets in the alpha 1 beta 3 gamma 2, alpha 2 beta 3 gamma 2, alpha 3 beta 3 gamma 2, alpha 5 beta 3 gamma 2 and alpha 6 beta 3 gamma 2 subtypes as well as some of the similarities among the pharmacophore/receptor models of these five distinct GABAA/Bz receptor subtypes.