Advances in our understanding of the pathogenesis of Alzheimer disease (AD) and vascular dementia (VaD) now permit responsible discussion of therapies that may go beyond relief of cognitive and behavioral symptoms and actually slow progression of disease. The mechanisms of neuronal death and the pathologic role of glia are being elucidated, and epidemiologic studies have suggested potential protective value for anti-inflammatory drugs, estrogen, and free-radical scavengers. However, demonstrating disease-modifying drug effects for progressive conditions such as dementia can be a daunting task, fraught with clinical, statistical, and ethical dilemmas. To evaluate trial designs for demonstrating such effects, the International Working Group on Harmonization of Dementia Drug Guidelines (IWG) conducted a symposium at the Sixth International Congress on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders, held July 1998 in Amsterdam. The presentations at the IWG symposium covered the two basic designs currently being used in clinical trials, survival analysis and staggered-start/withdrawal, in addition to clinical data generated from the National Institute on Aging Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study vitamin E/selegiline trial in patients with AD and the phase III clinical studies of propentofylline in patients with AD and VaD. It is hoped that this article will open a dialogue among investigators and regulatory authorities regarding appropriate trial designs to support a regulatory claim for disease-modifying effects.