Regulation of attention and response to therapy in dementia by butyrylcholinesterase

Pharmacogenetics. 2003 Apr;13(4):231-9. doi: 10.1097/00008571-200304000-00008.


Objectives: To determine the response of patients with different butyrylcholinesterase genotypes to therapy, and the influence of butyrylcholinesterase on cognition. Acetylcholine plays a key role in attention and memory and reduced cortical acetylcholine is associated with the severity of dementia. Inhibitors of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase are an effective dementia treatment, though the role of the related enzyme butyrylcholinesterase is less well understood.

Methods: We examined the response of a cohort of dementia patients enrolled in a trial of a cholinesterase inhibitor who had been genotyped at the butyrylcholinesterase locus. Additionally a prospectively assessed cohort of dementia patients was genotyped and rate of cognitive decline examined, along with baseline cognitive performance in a group of elderly non-demented individuals. We identified that the presence of reduced-activity butyrylcholinesterase variants correlates with preserved attentional performance and reduced rate of cognitive decline. During cholinesterase inhibitor therapy, patients with normal butyrylcholinesterase show improved attention, though patients carrying reduced-activity enzyme do not, possibly due to being at ceiling performance. Butyrylcholinesterase did not however affect attentional performance in non-demented individuals with mild cognitive impairment.

Conclusions: These findings indicate that the butyrylcholinesterase enzyme is a major regulator of attention especially in cholinergic deficiency states through its ability to hydrolyse acetylcholine. Pharmacologic manipulation of this enzyme may be a viable strategy in dementia treatment and, with butyrylcholinesterase genotyping, may provide pharmacogenomic treatment of dementia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism
  • Alzheimer Disease / drug therapy
  • Alzheimer Disease / enzymology
  • Alzheimer Disease / genetics*
  • Alzheimer Disease / psychology
  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Attention / drug effects*
  • Butyrylcholinesterase / deficiency
  • Butyrylcholinesterase / genetics*
  • Butyrylcholinesterase / therapeutic use*
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Cognition
  • DNA / blood
  • DNA / genetics
  • DNA / isolation & purification
  • DNA Primers
  • Dementia / drug therapy
  • Dementia / enzymology
  • Dementia / genetics*
  • Dementia / psychology
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Mutation, Missense
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction


  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors
  • DNA Primers
  • DNA
  • Butyrylcholinesterase
  • Acetylcholine