Cholinergic mechanisms in learning, memory and dementia: a review of recent evidence

Trends Neurosci. 1991 Jun;14(6):220-3. doi: 10.1016/0166-2236(91)90117-d.


The discovery in the late 1970s that cholinergic neurons in the basal forebrain degenerate in Alzheimer's disease (AD) greatly accelerated research on the role of cholinergic mechanisms in learning and memory. As is often the case in science, the early enthusiasm for the cholinergic hypothesis has been tempered by the results of subsequent research. Although there is substantial pharmacological evidence that unspecified cholinergic systems in the brain play important roles in some forms of learning and memory, recent findings in humans indicate that antimuscarinic drugs do not model the deficits seen in AD. In addition, the goal of elucidating the functions of these basal forebrain neurons in animals has proved to be difficult and is yet to be achieved. Despite substantial effort, therefore, the cognitive and behavioral consequences of cholinergic pathology in AD remain unknown. Under these circumstances, attempts to develop cholinergic pharmacotherapies for these deficits in AD are based on questionable assumptions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dementia / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology