Piracetam is the first of the so-called 'nootropic' drugs, a unique class of drugs which affect mental function. In animal models and in healthy volunteers, the drug improves the efficiency of the higher telencephalic functions of the brain involved in cognitive processes such as learning and memory. The pharmacology of piracetam is unusual because it protects against various physical and chemical insults applied to the brain. It facilitates learning and memory in healthy animals and in animals whose brain function has been compromised, and it enhances interhemispheric transfer of information via callosal transmission. At the same time, even in relatively high dosages it is devoid of any sedative, analeptic or autonomic activities. How piracetam exerts its effects on memory disorders is still under investigation, although among other proposed mechanisms of action it is thought to facilitate central nervous system efficiency of cholinergic neurotransmission. Results from trials involving elderly patients with senile cognitive disorders have been equivocal, as have the results obtained when piracetam has been combined with acetylcholine precursors. Piracetam seems to be almost completely devoid of adverse effects, and is extremely well tolerated. In conclusion, opinion is divided as to the benefits of piracetam in the treatment of senile cognitive decline. Although double-blind studies in the elderly have produced mixed results, some such trials (particularly those involving larger numbers of patients) have reported favourable findings, thus offering some reason for cautious optimism in a notoriously difficult area of therapeutics. However, further investigations of piracetam alone and in combination therapy are required before any absolute conclusions can be drawn.