Biochemical, electrophysiological, and pharmacological evidence supporting a role for cholinergic dysfunction in age-related memory disturbances is critically reviewed. An attempt has been made to identify pseudoissues, resolve certain controversies, and clarify misconceptions that have occurred in the literature. Significant cholinergic dysfunctions occur in the aged and demented central nervous system, relationships between these changes and loss of memory exist, similar memory deficits can be artificially induced by blocking cholinergic mechanisms in young subjects, and under certain tightly controlled conditions reliable memory improvements in aged subjects can be achieved after cholinergic stimulation. Conventional attempts to reduce memory impairments in clinical trials hav not been therapeutically successful, however. Possible explanations for these disappointments are given and directions for future laboratory and clinical studies are suggested.

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