Neurochemical Research

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 318–327 | Cite as

The Place of Choline Acetyltransferase Activity Measurement in the “Cholinergic Hypothesis” of Neurodegenerative Diseases

  • Antonio ContestabileEmail author
  • Elisabetta Ciani
  • Andrea Contestabile
Original Paper


The so-called “cholinergic hypothesis” assumes that degenerative dysfunction of the cholinergic system originating in the basal forebrain and innervating several cortical regions and the hippocampus, is related to memory impairment and neurodegeneration found in several forms of dementia and in brain aging. Biochemical methods measuring the activity of the key enzyme for acetylcholine synthesis, choline acetyltransferase, have been used for many years as a reliable marker of the integrity or the damage of the cholinergic pathways. Stereologic counting of the basal forebrain cholinergic cell bodies, has been additionally used to assess neurodegenerative changes of the forebrain cholinergic system. While initially believed to mark relatively early stages of disease, cholinergic dysfunction is at present considered to occur in advanced dementia of Alzheimer’s type, while its involvement in mild and prodromal stages of the disease has been questioned. The issue is relevant to better understand the neuropathological basis of the diseases, but it is also of primary importance for therapy. During the last few years, indeed, cholinergic replacement therapies, mainly based on the use of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors to increase synaptic availability of acetylcholine, have been exploited on the assumption that they could ameliorate the progression of the dementia from its initial stages. In the present paper, we review data from human studies, as well as from animal models of Alzheimer’s and Down’s diseases, focusing on different ways to evaluate cholinergic dysfunction, also in relation to the time point at which these dysfunctions can be demonstrated, and on some discrepancy arising from the use of different methodological approaches. The reviewed literature, as well as some recent data from our laboratories on a mouse model of Down’s syndrome, stress the importance of performing biochemical evaluation of choline acetyltransferase activity to assess cholinergic dysfunction both in humans and in animal models.


Forebrain cholinergic system Alzheimer’s disease Down’s syndrome Animal models Dementia Aging 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Antonio Contestabile
    • 1
    Email author
  • Elisabetta Ciani
    • 2
  • Andrea Contestabile
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of BolognaBolognaItaly
  2. 2.Department of Human and General PhysiologyUniversity of BolognaBolognaItaly

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