The cholinesterases are members of the serine hydrolase family, which utilize a serine residue at the active site. Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) is distinguished from butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) by its greater specificity for hydrolysing acetylcholine. The function of AChE at cholinergic synapses is to terminate cholinergic neurotransmission. However, AChE is expressed in tissues that are not directly innervated by cholinergic nerves. AChE and BChE are found in several types of haematopoietic cells. Transient expression of AChE in the brain during embryogenesis suggests that AChE may function in the regulation of neurite outgrowth. Overexpression of cholinesterases has also been correlated with tumorigenesis and abnormal megakaryocytopoiesis. Acetylcholine has been shown to influence cell proliferation and neurite outgrowth through nicotinic and muscarinic receptor-mediated mechanisms and thus, that the expression of AChE and BChE at non-synaptic sites may be associated with a cholinergic function. However, structural homologies between cholinesterases and adhesion proteins indicate that cholinesterases could also function as cell-cell or cell-substrate adhesion molecules. Abnormal expression of AChE and BChE has been detected around the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease. The function of the cholinesterases in these regions of the Alzheimer brain is unknown, but this function is probably unrelated to cholinergic neurotransmission. The presence of abnormal cholinesterase expression in the Alzheimer brain has implications for the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease and for therapeutic strategies using cholinesterase inhibitors.