Cortical cholinergic deficits have been implicated in the cognitive deficits produced by a variety of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's disease (AD). Recent studies have suggested that many of the chronically institutionalized geriatric schizophrenic patients are also cognitively impaired. In this postmortem study we compared cholinergic marker activity in six different cortical regions derived from elderly controls, chronically institutionalized geriatric schizophrenic patients, and AD patients. All of the Alzheimer's disease cases met neuropathological criteria for AD, while none of the schizophrenic cases met criteria for AD. Cholinergic marker activity (choline acetyltransferase and acetylcholinesterase) was significantly diminished in the AD cohort but not in the schizophrenic cohort. Additionally, cortical choline acetyltransferase activity was significantly and negatively correlated with Clinical Dementia Rating scores (CDR), whereas no such correlations were evident in the schizophrenic cohort. These results suggest that cognitive deficits in geriatric schizophrenics are not due to diminished cortical cholinergic activity.