Alzheimer's disease (AD) is characterized by the presence of senile plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, and neuronal cell loss associated with membrane cholesterol release. 24S-hydroxycholesterol (24S-OH-Chol) is an enzymatically oxidized product of cholesterol mainly synthesized in the brain. We tested the hypothesis that plasma levels of this oxysterol could be used as a putative biochemical marker for an altered cholesterol homeostasis in the brain of AD patients. Thirty patients with clinical criteria for AD, 30 healthy volunteers, 18 depressed patients, and 12 patients with vascular dementia (non-Alzheimer demented) were studied. Plasma concentrations of 24S-OH-Chol were assayed by isotope dilution;-mass spectrometry, cholesterol was measured enzymatically, and apolipoprotein E (apoE) was genotyped by polymerase chain reaction and restricted fragment length polymorphism. The concentration of 24S-OH-Chol in AD and non-Alzheimer demented patients was modestly but significantly higher than in healthy controls and in depressed patients. There was no significant difference in the concentrations of 24S-OH-Chol between depressed patients and healthy controls nor between AD and non-Alzheimer demented patients. The apoE straightepsilon4 allele influences plasma 24S-OH-Chol. However, this influence could be completely accounted for by the elevated plasma cholesterol in apoE4 hetero- or homozygotes. Plasma 24S-OH-Chol levels correlated negatively with the severity of dementia. AD and vascular demented patients appear to have higher circulating levels of 24S-OH-Chol than depressed patients and healthy controls. We speculate that 24S-OH-Chol plasma levels may potentially be used as an early biochemical marker for an altered cholesterol homeostasis in the central nervous system. 24S-hydroxycholesterol (cerebrosterol) is increased in Alzheimer and vascular demented patients.