Lithium is one of the most effective medications for bipolar disorder, but it has other benefits as well. At a 2015 scientific meeting, Ronald Fieve reported that among 1021 psychiatric outpatients, 570 who received long-term lithium treatment for their psychiatric illnesses had a significantly lower likelihood of certain medical conditions compared to the other outpatients who did not receive lithium therapy. The medical conditions that lithium made less likely were seizures, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia, and heart attack.
It is not yet know how lithium decreases these medical conditions. It may be by increasing the length of telomeres. Telomeres are repeated DNA sequences that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect them during cell replication. Telomeres get shorter with aging and with stressors or psychiatric illnesses. Lithium directly increases the enzyme telomerase, which maintains telomere length. This may be one reason lithium use provides some protection from seizures, heart attacks, and other conditions.
Lithium is the treatment of choice for adults with bipolar disorder, but has rarely been studied in children or adolescents. One of the first double-blind placebo-controlled trials of lithium for the treatment of mania in children and teens aged 7–17 showed that the drug produced greater improvement in mania than did placebo. Side effects included blurred vision, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, thirst, increased thyroid-stimulating hormone, decreased appetite, dizziness, sedation, tremor, increased urination, and rash.
In the study by researcher Adelaide S. Robb and colleagues, which was presented at the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, doses began at 300mg twice a day, were based on each child’s weight, and were slowly increased.
At the same meeting, researcher Russell Scheffer presented data on 41 children who continued lithium treatment for 16 weeks with good results. The mean dose was 27.8 +/- 6.7 mg/kg per day.
At the 2015 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, researcher Martin McInnis described how stem cells can be used to identify biochemical abnormalities in patients with bipolar disorder. In this research, the stem cells, or IPSCs (for induced pluripotential stem cells), are created when cells from skin fibroblasts, which produce connective tissue, are treated with chemicals that cause them to de-differentiate back into stem cells.
McInnis identified several abnormalities in the stem cells of patients with bipolar disorder. Stem cells with the gene CACNA1C, which is associated with vulnerability to bipolar disorder, fired more rapidly than non-CACNA1C stem cells. There were other abnormalities at the NMDA glutamate receptor and an imbalance of the neurotransmitter GABA in the cells. When the cells were treated with lithium, some of these abnormalities were reversed. In the cells with the CACNA1C gene, lithium normalized the firing rate. Lithium aslo re-balanced the distribution of GABA in the cells.
McInnis hopes that this stem cell research will shed light on the abnormalities associated with bipolar disorder, help explain how lithium corrects some of these, and lead to the development of new therapeutic approaches.
The first large, randomized, double-blind study of lithium in children and teens has shown that as in adults, the drug can reduce mania with minimal side effects. The study by researcher Robert Findling was published in the journal Pediatrics in October. Lithium is the best available treatment for adults, but until now little research had been done on treatments for children and teens with bipolar disorder.
In the study, 81 participants between the ages of 7 and 17 with a diagnosis of bipolar I disorder and manic or mixed episodes were randomized to receive either lithium or placebo for a period of eight weeks. By the end of the study, those patients taking lithium showed greater reductions in manic symptoms than those taking placebo. Among those taking lithium, 47% scored “much improved” or “very much improved” on a scale of symptom severity, compared to 21% of those taking placebo.
Dosing began at 900mg/day for most participants. (Those weighing less than 65 lbs. were started at 600mg/day.) Dosing could be gradually increased. The mean dose for patients aged 7–11 was 1292mg/day, and for patients aged 12–17 it was 1716mg/day.
Side effects were minimal. There were no significant differences in weight gain between the two groups. Those taking lithium had significantly higher levels of thyrotropin, a peptide that regulates thyroid hormones, than those taking placebo. If thyroid function is affected in people taking lithium, the lithium dosage may be decreased, or patients may be prescribed thyroid hormone.
Earlier this year we described a 2015 study by Harald Aiff and colleagues that suggested that long-term lithium use was associated with a risk of kidney failure. That study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, included 630 patients who had taken lithium for at least 10 years. One-third of these patients had evidence of kidney dysfunction, and in 5%, the impairment was severe. Two new studies provide some data that suggest these risks may not be lithium-specific and are comparable to risks that come with taking other medications.
The first, by Stefan Clos et al. in The Lancet Psychiatry, included 1,120 patients followed for up to 12 years. On average, these patients had been exposed to lithium for a little over 4.5 years. Clos and colleagues determined patients’ estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR), a measure of how well the blood is filtered by the kidneys. The researchers concluded that there was “no effect of stable lithium maintenance therapy on the rate of change of eGFR over time” compared to other drugs such as quetiapine, olanzapine, or valproate.
The second new study, by Lars Vedel Kessing and colleagues in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, included 26,731 patients exposed to lithium and 420,959 exposed to anticonvulsants. Kessing and colleagues concluded that both exposure to lithium and exposure to an anticonvulsant were associated with an increased rate of chronic kidney disease, but lithium was not associated with end-stage kidney disease (the kind that requires dialysis or renal transplantation).
The three studies taken together suggest the following: Taking lithium for an average of 4–5 years does not affect kidney functioning, and longer exposure may not harm kidney function any more than other medications (such as anticonvulsants) would. However, kidney functioning (in terms of eGFR) does decline with age, and is also lower among those with higher baseline eGRF, those with other illnesses, those taking other drugs that affect the kidneys, and those who experience an episode of lithium toxicity. Read more
Studies of rodents with depression-like behaviors revealed that the combination of low (sub-therapeutic) doses of lithium and infusions of ketamine produced antidepressant-like effects. Researchers believed this might mean that in humans, lithium might have a unique effect potentiating the effects of ketamine.
In a small study by Mark J. Niciu presented at the 2015 meeting of the Society for Biological Psychiatry, patients with bipolar depression taking lithium or valproate mood stabilizers were given ketamine infusions or control infusions. In the 23 patients taking lithium and the 13 taking valproate, ketamine’s antidepressant effects were significantly better than placebo, but there was no difference between lithium and valproate with regard to these antidepressant effects. These preliminary data in a small number of subjects do not support the proposition that lithium augments the effects of ketamine in depression.
Lithium inhibits the enzyme glycogen synthase kinase 3, which has been implicated in dementia. To study whether lithium may prevent cognitive decline, researchers led by Tobias Gerhard looked at the medication histories of patients with bipolar disorder who were 50 years of age or older. In their article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, those patients who had taken lithium 301–365 days out of the previous year had substantially lower risk of dementia than those who had not taken lithium during that time. Patients who had 300 or fewer days of lithium use did not have a significant reduction in dementia risk, nor did patients who were prescribed anticonvulsant drugs.
Editor’s Note: These data are consistent with those of Lars Kessing and colleagues, which suggest that patients in Denmark who renewed their lithium prescriptions were less likely to receive a diagnosis of dementia in old age.
In 2011, Orestes V. Forlenza and colleagues also reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry that compared to placebo, a very small dose of lithium, 150 mg/day, slowed the progression of mild cognitive impairment over one year.
Long-term lithium use has long been associated with decreased renal function. But some Swedish researchers noticed that most long-term studies of patients with renal failure had begun in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, when it became clear that lithium could reduce renal function, doctors began to institute new safety measures for lithium users, including monitoring of blood levels of the drug and of creatinine, a substance that is excreted by the kidneys as part of normal muscle metabolism. So the researchers undertook a new study to examine whether the protocols instituted in the 1980s had reduced the renal risks of long-term lithium use. Unfortunately, they found that some reduced renal function is still common among people who use lithium for longer than 10 years, and this risk does not necessarily decrease when patients stop taking lithium.
The researchers, led by Harald Aiff, published the study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2015. They identified 4,879 patients who had been prescribed lithium, and narrowed this list down to 630 adult patients who had taken lithium for at least 10 cumulative years, who had normal levels of creatinine when they began taking lithium, and on whom good data existed. About one-third of these patients had evidence of chronic renal impairment, and in 5% of these the impairment was severe or very severe.
Aiff and colleagues’ findings show that lithium treatment requires careful monitoring, especially over the long term. Patients must consider the risk/benefit ratio of lithium treatment. Since prevention of mood episodes can preserve an average ten years of life expectancy, and lithium has the best data for efficacy in preventing manic and depressive episodes, patients must weigh the risks of insufficiently treated bipolar illness against the possibility for long-term decreases in kidney function.
Studies in Japan, Austria, and Texas have reported that trace amounts of lithium in drinking water are associated with lower suicide rates. A new study seeks to clarify these findings by removing any statistical factors other than lithium levels that could produce these results.
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, collected 434 lithium samples in drinking water over three years, and compared these with suicide rates in the population of 274 municipalities of Kyushi Island in Japan.
The researchers, led by Nobuyoshi Ishii, then controlled for size of population, proportion of elderly people, proportion of one-person households, proportion of people with a college education or more, proportion of people engaging in primary industry, overall unemployment rates, annual marriage rates, annual mean temperature, and annual savings in per person in Japan’s popular postal bank. In places with slightly higher trace levels of lithium in drinking water, there was a lower rate of suicides in men. Suicide rates for women and overall were not significantly associated with lithium levels.
Telomeres are repeated DNA sequences that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect them during cell replication. Telomeres get shorter with aging and with stressors or psychiatric illnesses. Researcher Alexandre Mathe and colleagues recently found that in a line of rats bred to be more susceptible to stress and depression-like behavior, hippocampal telomeres were shorter than in normal rats or rats bred to be less susceptible. The susceptible rats also had lower levels of enzymes that maintain telomere length. Both telomerase activity and Tert (telomerase reverse transcriptase) expression were reduced in the susceptible rat compared to the other rats. However, lithium reversed the low levels of telomerase activity and Tert expression.
Editor’s Note: Lithium increases hippocampal volume in people, and also increases human telomerase. Researcher Lina Martinsson reported in 2013 that lithium increases telomere length in white cells. Now lithium has increased hippocampal telomerase in a rat model of depression. Short telomeres are associated with aging and increased vulnerability to a wide range of medical and psychiatric disorders. Since people with bipolar disorder are prone to memory problems, medical problems, and short telomeres, they might want to talk to their physician about including lithium in their treatment regimen, if they are not already taking it.