Advances in our understanding of the structure, function and distribution of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the CNS have provided the impetus for new studies examining the role(s) that these receptors and associated processes may play in CNS functions. Further motivation has come from the realisation that such receptors must be involved in the maintenance of cigarette smoking, and from clues provided by studies of degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, in which the loss of nicotinic receptors has been described. Ongoing investigations of the molecular substructure of central nicotinic receptors and their pharmacology have begun to open up new possibilities for novel CNS therapeutics with nicotinic agents. Exploiting these possibilities will require understanding of the role(s) that these receptor systems play in human cognitive, behavioural, motor and sensory functioning. Clues from careful studies of human cognition are beginning to emerge and will provide direction for studies of potentially therapeutic novel nicotinic agents. Despite the promising results of acute studies, few long term studies with nicotine or nicotinic drugs have been performed in dementing disorders. Thus there is uncertainty as to whether long term nicotinic treatment will provide sustained cognitive benefit. It is even more uncertain whether such cognitive benefit will have a significant clinical impact on patients and their families. To maximise the potential benefit of long term treatment with nicotinic agonists (or other cholinergic drugs), we suggest that drug treatment should be combined with cognitive rehabilitation strategies. This will enable patients and/or their families to focus on the particular cognitive domains that may be improved.