At a glance: Cholinergic agents
Type of therapy
Medical
The claim
Reduces the communication and behaviour characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including aggressive and hyperactive behaviour
Suitable for
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Research rating

Find out more about this rating system in our FAQs.

Not yet reviewed by our research sources.
Warnings
Warning   Limited and short-term side effects have been reported, including slowed heart rate, drowsiness and blurred vision. The treatment should be avoided when the patient has any sort of blockage in the urinary or digestive tracts, like a tumour, or severe inflammation. The treatment should be used with caution in patients with asthma, epilepsy, slow heartbeat, hyperthyroidism or gastric ulcers.
Time

Estimate of the total time for family in hours per week and duration

0-10
Little time is needed to take the medication, but treatment might be ongoing.
Cost

Estimate of cost to family per session/item or week

$0-30
The cost varies depending on the drug prescribed and how often it’s taken.

What are cholinergic agents?

Cholinergic agents are drugs that affect the part of the brain involved in learning, short-term memory, arousal and reward. Some of the drugs used as cholinergic agents include memantine, rivastigmine and donepezil.

Who are cholinergic agents for?

The therapy can be used for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest the treatment might be more beneficial for older children and teenagers.

What are cholinergic agents used for?

This therapy aims to help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) feel less irritable. It also aims to improve the speech and behaviour of people with ASD.

Where does cholinergic agent therapy come from?

In the past, cholinergic agents have been used in the treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia. More recently, the safety and effectiveness of these drugs has been examined for use with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What is the idea behind cholinergic agent therapy?

The brain is full of pathways and systems that control different functions, like how we learn and how memory works. Within the brain, cholinergic systems help control and regulate our thinking. These systems use a chemical called acetylcholine to transmit signals or impulses.

If areas of the brain are low in acetylcholine, cholinergic agents can be used to stimulate acetylcholine in the brain and improve how the brain works.

What does the use of cholinergic agents involve?

This therapy involves taking medication or applying a patch to the skin. The specific medication and dosage depend on each person’s symptoms.

Cost considerations

The cost of this therapy varies depending on the brand of drug used, whether the drug is covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), the drug dose or strength, and whether you hold a concession card like a Health Care Card.

Does cholinergic agent therapy work?

This therapy has not yet been rated. There’s little or no evidence of any benefit and some evidence of the possibility of harm.

Who practises this method?

GPs, paediatricians or child psychiatrists can give you information about the potential benefits and risks of using cholinergic agents.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

If your child is using cholinergic agents, you need to ensure that your child takes the medication as required. You also need to monitor the effects of the medication.

Where can you find a practitioner?

If you’re interested in cholinergic agents, it’s best to talk about this therapy with your GP, paediatrician or a child psychiatrist.

Go to Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – Find a psychiatrist.

You could also talk about this therapy with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.

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Last updated or reviewed
01-08-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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