The pharmacology of donepezil:
a new treatment of Alzheimer's disease

Wilkinson DG.
University of Southampton,
Thornhill Research Unit,
Moorgreen Hospital, West End,
Southampton, SO30 3JB, UK.
Expert Opin Pharmacother 1999 Nov;1(1):121-35


Donepezil (donepezil hydrochloride, E-2020, Aricept, Eisai), launched in March 1997, was the first drug to be marketed for the symptomatic treatment of Alzheimer's disease (AD) in the UK. It had been launched a year earlier in the US where clinicians had already had experience of tacrine (THA). Donepezil is a piperidine based, potent, specific, non-competitive and reversible inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase (AChE). It is structurally dissimilar from other established cholinesterase inhibitors, namely THA (an acridine compound) and the carbamates, physostigmine and rivastigmine and has a pharmacokinetic and tolerability profile distinct from these agents. Experimentally, donepezil inhibits AChE activity in human erythrocytes and increases extracellular acetylcholine levels in the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus of the rat. Pharmacologically, donepezil has a half-life of approximately 70 h lending itself to once daily administration. The most common adverse events reported in clinical trials have been gastrointestinal, typically nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and constipation. Headache, dizziness and sleep disturbance have also been reported; there has been no evidence of hepatotoxicity. Clinically a number of placebo-controlled trials have shown that donepezil 5 or 10 mg daily was associated with significant improvements in cognitive function, as assessed by the Alzheimer's disease Assessment Scale-cognitive subscale (ADAS cog) after 12 or 24 weeks treatment. Significant improvements in global function and activities of daily living have also been demonstrated after 24 weeks treatment compared with placebo in patients with mild to moderate AD. Donepezil was the first rational treatment available in the UK for this disabling condition and as such received considerable attention. Much of the original attention was negative, ostensibly based on the scientific view that there was not enough published evidence to justify widespread use, but this was driven by concerns about the potentially high drug costs if all patients with AD were eligible to receive it. Considerable data have now been produced from Phase II, III and post-marketing surveillance. This drug evaluation will review the basic pharmacology of donepezil and place it in context with the trial data and the author's clinical experience with the drug.

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