Cholinesterase inhibitors are designed to protect the cholinergic system, which is essential for memory and learning and is progressively destroyed in Alzheimer's. These drugs work by preventing the breakdown of the brain chemical acetylcholine and are recommended for the treatment of mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's. The first cholinesterase inhibitor, tacrine, was approved in 1''- but is rarely prescribed today due to safety concerns. The three most commonly prescribed cholinesterase inhibitors are donepezil (approved in 1996), rivastigmine (approved in 2000), and galantamine (approved in 2001).
Cholinesterase inhibitors may increase the risk for gastrointestinal bleeding or ulcers, and patients should be cautious about using these medicines with NSAIDs (which can also cause gastric irritation). Common side effects of cholinesterase inhibitors, especially when taken at higher doses, may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and upset stomach.
- Donepezil. Donepezil (Aricept) is the only Alzheimer's drug approved for all stages of dementia, from mild to severe. It is taken once a day and has only modest benefits at best.
- Rivastigmine. Rivastigmine (Exelon) targets two enzymes: Acetylcholinesterase and butyrylcholinesterase. It is taken as a pill twice a day. (The FDA approved a skin patch version of the drug in 2007.) Rivastigmine may cause significantly more side effects than donepezil, including nausea, vomiting, and headache.
- Galantamine (Razadyne). Galantamine protects the cholinergic system and acts on nicotine receptors, which are also depleted during Alzheimer's.
- Tacrine. Tacrine (Cognex) was the first cholinergic protective drug. It needs to be taken four times a day, has only modest benefits, and has no benefits for patients who carry the ApoE- gene. In high doses, it can also injure the liver. In general, newer cholinergic protective drugs that do not pose as great a risk for the liver are now used for Alzheimer's.
Comparative studies have reported little differences in effectiveness among these drugs. All drugs have gastrointestinal side effects, including nausea. Of note, some of the drugs often used in elderly Alzheimer's disease patients are known as anticholinergics and may offset the effects of the Alzheimer's disease pro-cholinergic drugs. Such drugs include antihistamines, antipsychotic drugs, and some anti-incontinence drugs.
In any case, the benefits of these drugs are far from dramatic and may often not be noticeable in everyday life. In fact, many doctors have reservations about developing any additional drugs that affect the cholinergic system since, at best, they only slow progression and do not appear to affect the basic destructive disease process. When patients go off the drugs, the deterioration continues.