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BACKGROUND: The main pharmacological approach for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease (AD) has been based on the use of agents potentiating cholinergic transmission, particularly by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase (AChE), the enzyme that destroys acetylcholine after it has been secreted into the synaptic clefts. Physostigmine is an AChE inhibitor originally extracted from calabar beans. It is licensed in many countries as an agent for reversing the effect of drugs and poisons causing the anticholinergic syndrome. Studies conducted more than 20 years ago suggested that physostigmine could improve memory in people with or without dementia. Investigation of this property has been limited by the very short half-life of physostigmine. Various forms of administering the drug have been tried to overcome this problem, most recently a controlled-release (CR) oral formulation, and a skin patch. It has been proposed as a potential drug for the symptomatic treatment of AD. OBJECTIVES: To determine whether there is evidence of beneficial effects for the use of physostigmine in Alzheimer's disease. To assess the incidence and severity of adverse effects. SEARCH STRATEGY: The Cochrane Controlled Trials Register was searched using the following terms: 'physostigmine', 'physostigmine salicylate', 'Synapton' and 'Antilirium' in accordance with the Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement Group's search strategy. The pharmaceutical company was contacted. SELECTION CRITERIA: All relevant unconfounded, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials in which physostigmine was administered for more than one day to patients with dementia of Alzheimer type. Trials in which the allocation to the treatment was not randomized, or in which the allocation to the treatment was not concealed were excluded. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Data were extracted independently by two reviewers (JMC & JB), pooled where appropriate and possible, and the weighted or standardized mean differences or Peto odds ratios (95% CI) were estimated. Where possible, intention-to-treat analysis was used. MAIN RESULTS: Fifteen studies were included using four different methods of administration of physostigmine. Four studies, involving 29 people in total, used intravenous infusion; seven, involving 131 people, used a conventional oral form; four, involving 1456 participants, used a controlled-release oral form, and one study of 181 people used a verum skin patch. There are no usable results from the intravenous infusion trials, and the few results from the conventional oral form showed no benefit of physostigmine compared with placebo. The results from two of the four studies of the controlled-release physostigmine apply only to a group of patients identified as responders in a pre-randomization titration period. The best dose physostigmine (mean 25mg/day) was associated with a 1.75 point improvement on ADAS-Cog score (mean difference -1.75, 95% confidence interval -2.90, -0.60 on an intention-to-treat basis) and a 0.26 point improvement on the CGIC score (treated as a continuous scale) (mean difference -0.26, 95% confidence interval 0.06, 0.46 on an intention-to-treat basis) compared with placebo at 6 weeks. There were statistically significantly higher numbers of patients from the physostigmine group withdrawing from the trial (22/183 vs 2/183)(OR 5.92, 95% confidence limits 2.59, 13.54) and suffering at least one event of nausea, vomiting, diarhoea, anorexia, dizziness, stomach pain, flatulence or sweating compared with placebo at 6 weeks. The best dose physostigmine (mean 27mg/day) was associated with a 2.0 point improvement on ADAS-Cog score (mean difference -2.02, 95% confidence interval -3.59, -0.45 on an intention to treat basis) compared with placebo at 12 weeks. There were statistically significantly higher numbers of patients from the physostigmine group withdrawing from the trial due to adverse events (13/83 vs 5/93)(OR 3.05, 95% confidence limits 1.15, 8.07) and suffering at least one event of nausea, vomiting, diarhoea, anorexia, dizziness, stomach pain, tremor, asthenia or sweating compared with placebo at 12 weeks. When no attempt was made to identify responders and all relevant patients with Alzheimer's disease were randomized, fixed dose physostigmine (mean 33 mg/day) was associated with a statistically significantly higher number withdrawing (234/358 vs 31/117)(OR 4.82, 95% confidence limits 3.17, 7.33), withdrawing due to adverse events (196/358 vs 10/117) (OR 6.54, 95%confidence limits 4.29, 9.95) and suffering at least one event of nausea, vomiting, diarhoea, anorexia, dizziness, stomach pain, dyspepsia, sweating, asthenia, dyspnoea or abnormal dreaming compared with placebo at 24 weeks. The results from the study of the verum patch physostigmine show that the double dose (delivering mean dose 12mg/day) was associated with statistically significantly higher numbers suffering at least one adverse event of vomiting, nausea or abdominal cramps compared with placebo at 24 weeks, but placebo was associated with statistically significantly greater numbers of gastrointestinal complaints at 24 weeks compared with single-dose physostigmine. REVIEWERS' CONCLUSIONS: The evidence of effectiveness of physostigmine for the symptomatic treatment of Alzheimer's disease is limited. Even in a controlled release formulation designed to overcome the short half-life, physostigmine showed no convincing benefit and adverse effects remained common leading to a high rate of withdrawal.

Original publication

DOI

10.1002/14651858.CD001499

Type

Journal article

Journal

Cochrane Database Syst Rev

Publication Date

2001

Keywords

Alzheimer Disease, Cholinesterase Inhibitors, Humans, Physostigmine, Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic