This study sought to examine the feasibility of prolonged assessment of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) activity in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of volunteers and to test the hypothesis that rivastigmine (ENA-713; Exelon, Novartis Pharma AG, Basel, Switzerland) selectively inhibits AChE in CSF in humans at a dose producing minimal inhibition of the peripheral enzyme. Lumbar CSF samples were collected continuously (0.1 mL x min(-1)) for 49 hours from eight healthy volunteers who took either placebo or a single oral dose of rivastigmine (3 mg). CSF specimens and samples of blood cells and blood plasma were analyzed at intervals for rivastigmine and its metabolite NAP 226-90 ([-] [3-([1-dimethylaminolethyl)-phenol]), erythrocyte AChE activity, CSF AChE activity, and plasma and CSF butyrylcholinesterase (BuChE) activity. Safety evaluations were performed 23 hours after drug dosing and at the end of the study. Evaluable data were obtained from six subjects. The mean time to maximal rivastigmine plasma concentration (tmax) was 0.83 +/- 0.26 hours, the mean maximal plasma concentration (Cmax) was 4.88 +/- 3.82 ng x mL(-1), the mean plasma area under the concentration versus time curve (AUC0-infinity) was 7.43 +/- 4.74 ng x hr x mL(-1), and the mean plasma t1/2 was 0.85 +/- 0.115 hours. The concentration of rivastigmine in CSF was lower than the quantification limit for assay (0.65 ng x mL(-1)), but NAP 226-90 reached a mean Cmax of 3.14 +/- 0.57 ng x mL(-1). Only minimal inhibition of erythrocyte AChE activity (approximately 3%) was observed. Inhibition of AChE in the CSF after rivastigmine administration was significantly greater than after placebo for up to 8.4 hours after the dose and was maximal (40%) at 2.4 hours. Plasma BuChE activity was significantly lower after rivastigmine than after placebo, but this was not clinically relevant. BuChE activity in CSF was significantly lower after rivastigmine than after placebo for up to 3.6 hours after dosing, but this difference was not sustained. This study confirms the feasibility of using continuous measurement of AChE activity in CSF over prolonged periods, that rivastigmine markedly inhibits CSF AChE after a single oral dose of 3 mg, and that the inhibition of central AChE is substantially greater than that of peripheral AChE or BuChE.