Lithium May Work by Restoring Dendritic Spines
New research on mice clarifies lithium’s effects on neurons and suggests how it can lead to improved symptoms. Dendrites are the long projections on neurons that seem to reach out to form synapses with other neurons. The surface of these dendrites is covered in mushroom-shaped spines that help create these synaptic connections. A 2016 article by research Ben Cheyette and colleagues in the journal Molecular Psychiatry reports that in mice with a genetic mutation common to people with autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, lithium restored healthy numbers of the mushroom-shaped spines. The lithium treatment also reversed symptoms such as lack of interest in social interactions, lack of motivation, and anxiety in the mice.
Cheyette and colleagues first identified a genetic mutation that affects signaling in what is known as the brain’s Wnt pathway. The mutation, while rare, is 80% more common in people with bipolar disorder, autism, and schizophrenia than in people without these disorders.
When the mice were given a similar mutation, they exhibited symptoms such as anxiety, decreased sociability, and lack of motivation. They also had reduced numbers of dendritic spines and impaired Wnt signaling.
Lithium can improve Wnt signaling by blocking an enzyme called GSK-3 beta that impairs the signaling.
Treating the mice with lithium restored their dendritic spines and improved their behavior.
Wnt signaling and dendritic spines may offer the key to lithium’s success in treating a variety of psychiatric disorders in people.