A second wind for the cholinergic system in Alzheimer's therapy

Behav Pharmacol. 2017 Apr;28(2 and 3-Spec Issue):112-123. doi: 10.1097/FBP.0000000000000300.


Notwithstanding tremendous research efforts, the cause of Alzheimer's disease (AD) remains elusive and there is no curative treatment. The cholinergic hypothesis presented 35 years ago was the first major evidence-based hypothesis on the etiology of AD. It proposed that the depletion of brain acetylcholine was a primary cause of cognitive decline in advanced age and AD. It relied on a series of observations obtained in aged animals, elderly, and AD patients that pointed to dysfunctions of cholinergic basal forebrain, similarities between cognitive impairments induced by anticholinergic drugs and those found in advanced age and AD, and beneficial effects of drugs stimulating cholinergic activity. This review revisits these major results to show how this hypothesis provided the drive for the development of anticholinesterase inhibitor-based therapies of AD, the almost exclusively approved treatment in use despite transient and modest efficacy. New ideas for improving cholinergic therapies are also compared and discussed in light of the current revival of the cholinergic hypothesis on the basis of two sets of evidence from new animal models and refined imagery techniques in humans. First, human and animal studies agree in detecting signs of cholinergic dysfunctions much earlier than initially believed. Second, alterations of the cholinergic system are deeply intertwined with its reactive responses, providing the brain with efficient compensatory mechanisms to delay the conversion into AD. Active research in this field should provide new insight into development of multitherapies incorporating cholinergic manipulation, as well as early biomarkers of AD enabling earlier diagnostics. This is of prime importance to counteract a disease that is now recognized to start early in adult life.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism*
  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease / diagnosis
  • Alzheimer Disease / drug therapy*
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cholinergic Antagonists / adverse effects
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Cognition Disorders / drug therapy
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Drug Design
  • Humans


  • Biomarkers
  • Cholinergic Antagonists
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors
  • Acetylcholine