This review starts with an historical background of the pharmacological development of tacrine almost fifty years ago (1949). Tacrine is the first drug to be tested, clinically, on a large scale and to be registered (1993) for treatment of Alzheimer's disease. For the first time, clinical results of four second generation cholinesterase inhibitors (ChEI) (donepezil, ENA 713, eptastigmine and metrifonate) are reviewed and compared with other ChEI such as tacrine, physostigmine and galanthamine. Data based on more than 6000 patients show that second generation drugs are well tolerated and show evidence of clinical efficacy. Differences are mainly due to frequency of side effects, number of drop outs and percentage of improved patients. These results also demonstrate the presence of clinical efficacy for all ChEI tested so far. Clinical mechanism of action, levels of efficacy and differences among various ChEI are discussed. Future potential indications are suggested. The present data indicate that optimization of effects prolongation and maintenance of clinical gains will depend on further knowledge of the compounds pharmacodynamic properties.