Experimental and clinical studies give evidence for breakdown of membrane phospholipids during neurodegeneration. In the present study, we measured the levels of glycerophosphocholine (GPCh), phosphocholine (PCh), and choline, that is, water-soluble metabolites of phosphatidylcholine (PtdCho), in human cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Among 30 cognitively normal patients the average CSF levels of GPCh, phosphocholine and choline were 3.64, 1.28, and 1.93 microM, respectively; metabolite levels did not change with increasing age. When compared with age-matched controls, patients with Alzheimer's disease had elevated levels of all choline metabolites: GPCh was significantly increased by 76% (P<0.01), phosphocholine by 52% (P<0.05), and free choline (Ch) by 39%. Six patients with vascular dementia had lower choline and elevated phosphocholine levels, when compared to controls, but normal levels of GPCh. These data demonstrate that Alzheimer's disease is accompanied by an increased PtdCho hydrolysis in the brain. PtdCho breakdown seems to be mediated by phospholipase A2 and leads to significantly elevated levels of GPCh in CSF.