Withdrawal or continuation of cholinesterase inhibitors or memantine or both, in people with dementia

Carole Parsons*, Stephanie Ward, Bernadette McGuinness, Peter Passmore, Carmel Hughes, Clement Loy, Wei Yin Lim

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Dementia is a progressive syndrome characterised by deterioration in memory, thinking and behaviour, and by impaired ability to perform daily activities. Two classes of drug ‐ cholinesterase inhibitors (donepezil, galantamine and rivastigmine) and memantine ‐ are widely licensed for dementia due to Alzheimer's disease, and rivastigmine is also licensed for Parkinson's disease dementia. These drugs are prescribed to alleviate symptoms and delay disease progression in these and sometimes in other forms of dementia. There are uncertainties about the benefits and adverse effects of these drugs in the long term and in severe dementia, about effects of withdrawal, and about the most appropriate time to discontinue treatment.

To evaluate the effects of withdrawal or continuation of cholinesterase inhibitors or memantine, or both, in people with dementia on: cognitive, neuropsychiatric and functional outcomes, rates of institutionalisation, adverse events, dropout from trials, mortality, quality of life and carer‐related outcomes.

Search methods:
We searched the Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement Group’s Specialised Register up to 17 October 2020 using terms appropriate for the retrieval of studies of cholinesterase inhibitors or memantine. The Specialised Register contains records of clinical trials identified from monthly searches of a number of major healthcare databases, numerous trial registries and grey literature sources.

Selection criteria:
We included all randomised, controlled clinical trials (RCTs) which compared withdrawal of cholinesterase inhibitors or memantine, or both, with continuation of the same drug or drugs.

Data collection and analysis:
Two review authors independently assessed citations and full‐text articles for inclusion, extracted data from included trials and assessed risk of bias using the Cochrane risk of bias tool. Where trials were sufficiently similar, we pooled data for outcomes in the short term (up to 2 months after randomisation), medium term (3‐11 months) and long term (12 months or more). We assessed the overall certainty of the evidence for each outcome using GRADE methods.

Main results:
We included six trials investigating cholinesterase inhibitor withdrawal, and one trial investigating withdrawal of either donepezil or memantine. No trials assessed withdrawal of memantine only. Drugs were withdrawn abruptly in five trials and stepwise in two trials. All participants had dementia due to Alzheimer's disease, with severities ranging from mild to very severe, and were taking cholinesterase inhibitors without known adverse effects at baseline. The included trials randomised 759 participants to treatment groups relevant to this review. Study duration ranged from 6 weeks to 12 months. There were too few included studies to allow planned subgroup analyses. We considered some studies to be at unclear or high risk of selection, performance, detection, attrition or reporting bias.

Compared to continuing cholinesterase inhibitors, discontinuing treatment may be associated with worse cognitive function in the short term (standardised mean difference (SMD) ‐0.42, 95% confidence interval (CI) ‐0.64 to ‐0.21; 4 studies; low certainty), but the effect in the medium term is very uncertain (SMD ‐0.40, 95% CI ‐0.87 to 0.07; 3 studies; very low certainty). In a sensitivity analysis omitting data from a study which only included participants who had shown a relatively poor prior response to donepezil, inconsistency was reduced and we found that cognitive function may be worse in the discontinuation group in the medium term (SMD ‐0.62; 95% CI ‐0.94 to ‐0.31). Data from one longer‐term study suggest that discontinuing a cholinesterase inhibitor is probably associated with worse cognitive function at 12 months (mean difference (MD) ‐2.09 Standardised Mini‐Mental State Examination (SMMSE) points, 95% CI ‐3.43 to ‐0.75; moderate certainty).

Discontinuation may make little or no difference to functional status in the short term (SMD ‐0.25, 95% CI ‐0.54 to 0.04; 2 studies; low certainty), and its effect in the medium term is uncertain (SMD ‐0.38, 95% CI ‐0.74 to ‐0.01; 2 studies; very low certainty). After 12 months, discontinuing a cholinesterase inhibitor probably results in greater functional impairment than continuing treatment (MD ‐3.38 Bristol Activities of Daily Living Scale (BADLS) points, 95% CI ‐6.67 to ‐0.10; one study; moderate certainty). Discontinuation may be associated with a worsening of neuropsychiatric symptoms over the short term and medium term, although we cannot exclude a minimal effect (SMD ‐ 0.48, 95% CI ‐0.82 to ‐0.13; 2 studies; low certainty; and SMD ‐0.27, 95% CI ‐0.47 to ‐0.08; 3 studies; low certainty, respectively). Data from one study suggest that discontinuing a cholinesterase inhibitor may result in little to no change in neuropsychiatric status at 12 months (MD ‐0.87 Neuropsychiatric Inventory (NPI) points; 95% CI ‐
8.42 to 6.68; moderate certainty).

We found no clear evidence of an effect of discontinuation on dropout due to lack of medication efficacy or deterioration in overall medical condition (odds ratio (OR) 1.53, 95% CI 0.84 to 2.76; 4 studies; low certainty), on number of adverse events (OR 0.85, 95% CI 0.57 to 1.27; 4 studies; low certainty) or serious adverse events (OR 0.80, 95% CI 0.46 to 1.39; 4 studies; low certainty), and on mortality (OR 0.75, 95% CI 0.36 to 1.55; 5 studies; low certainty). Institutionalisation was reported in one trial, but it was not possible to extract data for the groups relevant to this review.

Authors' conclusions
This review suggests that discontinuing cholinesterase inhibitors may result in worse cognitive, neuropsychiatric and functional status than continuing treatment, although this is supported by limited evidence, almost all of low or very low certainty. As all participants had dementia due to Alzheimer's disease, our findings are not transferable to other dementia types. We were unable to determine whether the effects of discontinuing cholinesterase inhibitors differed with baseline dementia severity. There is currently no evidence to guide decisions about discontinuing memantine. There is a need for further well‐designed RCTs, across a range of dementia severities and settings. We are aware of two ongoing registered trials. In making decisions about discontinuing these drugs, clinicians should exercise caution, considering the evidence from existing trials along with other factors important to patients and their carers.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD009081
Number of pages76
JournalCochrane database of systematic reviews (Online)
Issue number1
Early online date03 Feb 2021
Publication statusEarly online date - 03 Feb 2021


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