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Evidence-based pharmacotherapy of Alzheimer's disease

Evans, John Grimley; Wilcock, Gordon; Birks, Jacqueline


John Grimley Evans

Gordon Wilcock

Jacqueline Birks


Dementia is an acquired global impairment of cognitive capacities. Approximately 5% of people aged over 65 yr are affected by dementia, and some 70% of cases are thought to be due primarily to Alzheimer's disease. Descriptions of the clinical manifestations of Alzheimer's disease have been increasingly refined in the last decade but there is no diagnostic test for what remains fundamentally a pathologically defined condition. At the present time interventions for Alzheimer's disease are limited to those that modify the manifestations of the disease, and foremost amongst the candidates available are the cholinesterase inhibitors. The rationale for the use of cholinergic drugs for Alzheimer's disease lies in enhancing the secretion of, or prolonging the half-life of, acetylcholine in the brain. Several potential compounds have been tested, but short half-lives and a high incidence of cholinergic and other adverse effects have eliminated most. Only three are widely licensed for use, donepezil, galantamine and rivastigmine. Their efficacy is relatively modest. These drugs have been tested in 32 randomized, placebo-controlled trials. The trials assess cognitive function primarily, and in addition they may assess global function, activities of daily living, quality of life and behavioural disturbance typically over 3 or 6 months. The performance of each drug is summarized in a Cochrane review, a systematic review carried out according to strict guidelines. There was a significant benefit in favour of treatment compared with placebo for cognition and activities of daily living, but withdrawals due to adverse events were significantly higher for treatment than placebo for all three drugs. There is little evidence from direct comparisons between the three drugs. There are several economic analyses of the cost-effectiveness of these drugs, but the findings cannot be considered robust owing to inadequate data. A range of other pharmacological treatments have been tested, including selegiline, piracetam, vitamin E, Ginkgo biloba, anti-inflammatory drugs and hormone replacement therapy, but, so far, Cochrane reviews have not established the efficacy of these interventions for Alzheimer's disease. A Cochrane review of memantine shows benefits on cognitive and global function of the same order of magnitude as seen for the cholinesterase inhibitors. Memantine has been licensed in Europe for treatment of patients with moderately severe to severe Alzheimer's disease.


Evans, J. G., Wilcock, G., & Birks, J. (2004). Evidence-based pharmacotherapy of Alzheimer's disease. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 7(3), 351-369.

Journal Article Type Review
Publication Date Sep 1, 2004
Journal International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology
Print ISSN 1461-1457
Publisher Oxford University Press (OUP)
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Volume 7
Issue 3
Pages 351-369
Keywords Alzheimer's disease, cholinesterase inhibitors, dementia, therapy
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