Medications for Dementia

Whilst there’s no cure for dementia, certain medications can help to slow the progression of both cognitive and behavioural symptoms.  In doing so, they can contribute to improving the quality of life for those diagnosed with dementia and their carers.


Several drugs are available in Australia for people diagnosed with dementia and these are categorized as either cholinergic treatments (for early-mid stage Alzheimer’s) or Memantine (for mid-late stage Alzheimer’s).  Some doctors also prescribe people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s with high doses of vitamin E to help with cognitive changes.


Cholinergic treatments

Recommended specifically for use in the early-mid stages of Alzheimer’s disease, these drugs are also known as cholinesterase inhibitors and include:


  • Exelon (Rivastigmine Hydrogen Tartrate)          
  • Aricept (Donepezil Hydrochloride)
  • Reminyl (Galantamine Hydrobromide)  


They help to restore a chemical called acetylcholine in the brain.  Acetylcholine is responsible for a number of vital brain functions so the progressive destruction of it in the brain accounts for many of the symptoms of dementia.


Exelon, Aricept and Reminyl work by blocking the action of an enzyme, acetylcholinesterase, which decreases the amount of acetylcholine in the brain.  As a result, the symptoms that are caused by Alzheimer’s disease  are temporarily stabilised or improved.  This means that people diagnosed with the condition are able to think more clearly and see improvements in how they behave or function day-to-day.



Ebixa (Memantine Hydrochloride) is for mid-late stage of Alzheimer’s disease and it works in a different way to cholinergic treatments.


Ebixa blocks Glutamate, a chemical that presents in increased levels within those with Alzheimer’s.  Glutamate causes calcium to travel into brain cells, which results in brain damage.  By blocking Glutamate, Ebixa helps to stop this additional calcium from entering and damaging brain cells.


Unfortunately, Ebixa doesn’t help everyone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Improvements are often mild and vary between people.  Having said that, some known benefits of taking the drug include improved thinking, functioning and behaviour for a particular period of time.


Side effects

It’s important to remember that all drugs have side effects, and these are dependent on the type and dose of the medication.


As Alzheimer’s mainly affects older people, it’s also important to note that the ageing process can lead to significant problems with drug use.  Ageing involves significant chemical and hormonal changes that make older people far more sensitive to the effects of drugs.


It’s essential that if you or a loved one is considering taking any pharmacological treatment for dementia, please consult your doctor first and ensure your medication is reviewed regularly.


Future treatments

Researchers are always looking for breakthroughs in the treatment of dementia.  Several drugs are currently in development and testing through clinical trials.  Some recent positive news in this area includes:


Melbourne drug trial’s Alzheimer’s breakthrough

The Anavex 2-73 drug trial at Caulfield Hospital in Melbourne shows promising results.  The drug targets the sigma-1 receptor cells that remove abnormal proteins from cells, believed to be responsible for neurodegenerative conditions.  A larger controlled drug trial is being planned for 2017.


New drug prevents mental decline

Results of a recent clinical study showed that patients treated with a high dose of aducanumab (an antibody drug) presented with an almost complete removal of amyloid plaques.  These plaques typically prevent brain cells from communicating, leading to irreversible memory loss and cognitive decline.


New drug could prevent effects of Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope that initial lab studies will lead to a new drug being prescribed – with the ability to make nerve cells more resistant to the types of neurological changes that are usually related to the onset of dementia.


You can learn more about medication that worsens dementia symptoms, behaviours that aren’t responsive to drugs and questions to ask your doctor through our drugs and dementia factsheet on our website.


If you’d like support or further information about dementia, please call our 24-hour Advice Line on 1800 639 331.




Words: Ash Anand