The development of effective drugs for the treatment of dementia is an important therapeutic target. Drugs which stop the progression of dementia have not been developed; however, nootropics and metabolically active compounds such as the vinca alkaloids and the ergot alkaloids as well as alkylxanthines are widely used to alleviate the symptoms. This review summarises animal studies investigating the mechanism of action of these compounds and highlights gaps in our knowledge of their pharmacology. Nootropics, such as piracetam, facilitate learning and retrieval of information and protect the brain from physical and chemical intoxication. Nootropics may produce these effects via an enhancement of acetylcholine or dopamine release; however, this postulate requires further evaluation. The pharmacology of vinca alkaloids is reviewed with particular reference to vinpocetine. This compound attenuates cognitive deficits, reduces ischaemia-induced hippocampal cell loss and increases cerebral blood flow and glucose utilisation. These effects may be induced by modulation of cyclic nucleotide levels and adenosine re-uptake inhibition. An extensively examined ergot alkaloid is co-dergocrine; this compound increases both the oxygen tension and the electrical activity of the ischaemic cerebral cortex. Alkylxanthines have a wide range of pharmacological activities, and in this review the pharmacology of pentoxifylline, propentofylline and denbufylline is contrasted with that of theophylline and caffeine. In particular, the pharmacology of propentofylline and the selective low Km cyclic AMP phosphodiesterase inhibitor denbufylline is summarised. Although more carefully controlled clinical trials in well defined patient collectives are required, present evidence suggests some therapeutic efficacy for nootropics and metabolically active compounds. Further studies to more closely evaluate their mechanism of action may lead to the development of more effective agents for the therapy of dementia.