Primary CNS lymphoma (PCNSL) is a rare lymphoma that is confined to the CNS, with low tendency for systemic dissemination and a relatively aggressive course. Outcome in patients with PCNSL is often poor. Owing to its low incidence, current knowledge about optimal treatment of PCNSL is fragmentary. Chemotherapy regimens based on high-dose methotrexate are currently standard treatment for all patients with PCNSL who can tolerate such drugs. Whole-brain radiotherapy alone can lead to remission in up to 90% of patients, but often results in poor long-term disease control when given alone, and in delayed neurotoxicity when given after high-dose methotrexate. In this Review, we describe current approaches to diagnosis and treatment of PCNSL, and discuss novel therapeutic approaches that are currently in development, such as the use of rituximab and high-dose chemotherapy followed by autologous stem-cell transplantation. The possible use of intrathecal and intraventricular chemotherapy, optimal salvage treatment, and specific treatment approaches in elderly, paediatric and immunocompromised patients, are also considered.