All mutations known to cause familial Alzheimer's disease (AD) act by increasing the levels of soluble beta-amyloid peptide (A beta), especially the longer form, A beta42. However, in vivo elevation of soluble A beta in sporadic AD has so far not been shown. In the present study, we used enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays specific for A beta42 and A beta40 to investigate cerebrospinal fluid from sporadic AD at different stages of disease severity, to clarify the roles of A beta42 and A beta40 during disease progression. We also evaluated three other groups--one group of patients with mild cognitive impairment who were at risk of developing dementia, a cognitively intact, nondemented reference group diagnosed with depression, and a perfectly healthy control group. We found that A beta42 is strongly elevated in early and mid stages of AD, and thereafter it declines with disease progression. On the contrary, A beta40 levels were decreased in early and mid stages of AD. The group of cognitively impaired patients and the depression reference group had significantly higher levels of A beta42 than the healthy control group, implying that A beta42 is increased not only in AD, but in other central nervous system conditions as well. Our data also point out the importance of having thoroughly examined control material. The initial increase and subsequent decrease of A beta42 adds a new biochemical tool to follow the progression of AD and might be important in the monitoring of therapeutics.