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Lithium Has Even More Benefits Than Previously Thought
If psychiatry has a wonder drug, it might just be lithium.
Lithium is the only drug that a formulation of it was developed to specifically treat bipolar disorder and it went a long way to clearing out the masses of people who had been held in insane asylums prior to its advent. In short, while no one knew why it worked, it was very clear that it did.
We are getting closer to tracking down its mechanisms of action, but no one can say exactly how lithium works. Nevertheless, it is still the gold standard when it comes to treating bipolar disorder and is typically the drug that psychiatrists try to treat bipolar disorder with first.
What Can Lithium Do?
One of the cool things that lithium can do is that it can reduce your risk of suicide. In a meta-analysis of 48 studies, lithium was found to reduce the number of deaths from suicide as well as deaths from any cause in people with mood disorders. This may be because it reduces the chances of mood relapse but it may also be due to the decreased aggression and impulsivity seen in those taking lithium.
Lithium also appears to reset the body’s biological clock which is critical in bipolar disorder as bipolar disorder is often considered a circadian rhythm disorder. At the biological, molecular level, we now understand that lithium inhibits GSK-3β, which allows for the normal removal of reverb-a, which, in turn, allows for a normal body rhythm. (Didn’t catch that? That’s okay. It’s all explained here.)
What Else Can Lithium Do?
Here’s the new part. Lithium also seems to have neuroprotective mechanisms that protect people with bipolar disorder from Alzheimer disease and dementia.
In 2007, a cross-sectional study was released that shows that the risk of dementia in patients 60 and older was reduced in those taking continuous lithium. Case registry studies also have found a lower risk of Alzheimer disease in those bipolar patients taking long-term lithium. This is all in spite of the fact that people with bipolar disorder appear to be an increased risk of dementia, on average.
This is again shown in a study out of Brazil. Older patients were found to have a prevalence of dementia of 19 percent—almost three times the amount expected in that population. This increase was particularly severe in those who were not treated with lithium (33 percent), whereas the risk in those treated with lithium returned to normal population levels (5 percent).
From a physical perspective, one team that has been studying the brains of older adults with bipolar disorder reports that those not treated with lithium show much higher markers of inflammation, lower total grey matter and lower brain integrity values. Those treated with lithium for 10 or more years, however, showed brain scans that were much more similar to the controls (those without bipolar disorder).
Neuroprection and Lithium
These new developments in the understanding of neuroprotection could be important as people with bipolar disorder are known to have significant cognitive dysfunction in executive function, verbal memory, and information processing. It may be the case that lithium or what we learn from lithium, may be able to change all that.