Anticholinergic drugs can improve movement symptoms of Parkinson's disease, but with adverse mental effects, and there is not enough evidence to compare the different drugs.

Anticholinergics were the first drugs available for Parkinson´s disease and they are still widely used. They are believed to work by counteracting an imbalance which exists in Parkinson´s disease between two chemicals in the brain which transmit messages between nerve cells. However, anticholinergic drugs have been associated with unfavourable side effects. They are used alone, or with other anti-Parkinson's drugs. The review of trials found that anticholinergics can improve movement problems in people with Parkinson's disease, but also cause adverse mental effects (such as confusion, memory problems, restlessness and hallucinations). There is not enough evidence to compare the different anticholinergic drugs.

Authors' conclusions: 

As monotherapy or as an adjunct to other antiparkinsonian drugs, anticholinergics are more effective than placebo in improving motor function in Parkinson´s disease. Neuropsychiatric and cognitive adverse events occur more frequently on anticholinergics than on placebo and are a more common reason for withdrawal than lack of efficacy.
Results regarding a potentially better effect of the anticholinergic drug on tremor than on other outcome measures are conflicting and data do not strongly support a differential clinical effect on individual parkinsonian features.
Data is insufficient to allow comparisons in efficacy or tolerability between individual anticholinergic drugs.

Read the full abstract...

Anticholinergics were the first drugs available for the symptomatic treatment of Parkinson´s disease and they are still widely used today, both as monotherapy and as part of combination regimes. They are commonly believed to be associated with a less favourable side effect profile than other antiparkinsonian drugs, in particular with respect to neuropsychiatric and cognitive adverse events. They have been claimed to exert a better effect on tremor than on other parkinsonian features.


To determine the efficacy and tolerability of anticholinergics in the symptomatic treatment of Parkinson´s disease compared to placebo or no treatment.

Search strategy: 

The literature search included electronic searches of the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (The Cochrane Library, Issue 4, 2001), MEDLINE (1966 to 2001), Old Medline (1960-1965), Index Medicus (1927 - 1959), as well as handsearching the neurology literature including the reference lists of identified articles, other reviews and book chapters.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials of anticholinergic drugs versus placebo or no treatment in de-novo or advanced Parkinson´s disease, either as monotherapy or as an add-on to other antiparkinsonian drugs were included. Trials of anticholinergic drugs that were never in general clinical use were excluded.

Data collection and analysis: 

Data was abstracted independently by two authors. Differences were settled by discussion among all authors. Data collected included patient characteristics, disease duration and severity, concomitant medication, interventions including duration and dose of anticholinergic treatment, outcome measures, rates of and reasons for withdrawals, and neuropsychiatric and cognitive adverse events.

Main results: 

The initial search yielded 14 potentially eligible studies, five of which were subsequently excluded. In three cases this was because they dealt with substances that had never been marketed or had not been licensed for as far as could be traced back. One trial had been published twice in different languages. One study was excluded based on the assessment of its methodological quality.
The remaining nine studies were all of double-blind cross-over design and included 221 patients. Trial duration was between five and 20 weeks and drugs investigated were benzhexol (mean doses: 8 to 20 mg/d), orphenadrine (mean dose not reported), benztropine (mean dose not reported), bornaprine (8 to 8.25 mg/d), benapryzine (200 mg/d), and methixine (45 mg/d). Only one study involved two anticholinergic drugs. Outcome measures varied widely across studies and in many cases, the scales applied were the authors´ own and were not defined in detail. Incomplete reporting of methodology and results was frequent. The heterogeneous study designs as well as incomplete reporting precluded combined statistical analysis.
Five studies used both tremor and other parkinsonian features as outcome measures. Outcome measures in these five studies were too different for a combined analysis and results varied widely, from a significant improvement in tremor only to significant improvement in other features but not in tremor.
All studies except one (dealing with methixine) found a significant improvement from baseline on the anticholinergic drug in at least one outcome measure. The difference between placebo and active drug was reported in four studies and was found to be significant in all cases. No study failed to show superiority of the anticholinergic over placebo.
The occurrence of neuropsychiatric and cognitive adverse events was reported in all but three studies (in 35 patients on active drug versus 13 on placebo). The most frequently reported reason for drop-outs from studies was in patients on placebo due to withdrawal from pre-trial anticholinergic treatment.