The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) provoked an uproar in March last year when it published draft guidance which stated that drug treatments for Alzheimer's were not cost-effective enough to be available on the NHS.

It announced today that its Appraisal Committee is now recommending three drugs as "options for people with Alzheimer's disease of moderate severity only".

Andrew Dillon, NICE Chief Executive and Executive Lead for the appraisal, said: "People with Alzheimer's will now get these drugs when they can help them most. Patients and those who care for them will be able to feel more confident about gaining benefit from them."

Last year's draft guidance was widely condemned and NICE received an unprecedented response from doctors and campaigners calling for a rethink.

In the draft, NICE accepted that donepezil, rivastigmine, galantamine and memantine - known as cholinesterase inhibitors - could alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer's, but said they were not cost-effective for NHS use.

The drugs cost £2.50 a day, and carers say they help them cope with people with Alzheimer's because they reduce the symptoms which make care more difficult.

The draft is published on the NICE website, and the three-week public consultation ends on February 13.

The fourth drug, memantine, is not being recommended as an option.

The Alzheimer's Society estimates some 72,000 people have mild Alzheimer's in the UK, with around 309,000 in the moderate to severe category.

Neil Hunt, of the Action on Alzheimer's Drugs alliance, said: "We welcome the fact that Nice has acknowledged the effectiveness of drug treatments".

However he said the draft placed "severe restrictions" on access to the drugs.

He said sufferers in the later stages "benefit enormously" from Ebixa (memantine), while withholding treatment in the early stages was "unethical".

The watchdog says the recommendations are subject to consultation, and until then the 2001 guidance is still in force. The original guidance for donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine recommends their use for all patients with treatment stopping when they no longer have an effect.

When the guidance is published - it should be in July 2006 - it will apply to newly-diagnosed patients only.