Degenerative diseases of the brain were long considered among the most obscure and intractable of human maladies. However, recent advances in understanding their mechanisms have brought us to the verge of potential disease-modifying agents. This progress is perhaps best exemplified by the case of Alzheimer's disease. The application of molecular pathology and genetics has led to the recognition that the four genes implicated to date in familial Alzheimer's disease all chronically elevate cerebral levels of the amyloid beta-protein (Abeta). Accordingly, small molecule inhibitors of the beta- and gamma-secretases, the proteases that generate Abeta from its precursor, are under active development, and some have shown in vivo efficacy in mouse models. An alternative approach, active or passive immunization against Abeta, has received extensive pre-clinical validation in mice, but an effective preparation free of significant side effects in humans is still awaited. Several other potential therapies are also reviewed here. If one or more of these varied approaches is ultimately proven to slow or prevent dementia, Alzheimer's disease will become a salient example of the successful application of reductionist biology to the most complex of organs, the human cerebral cortex.