Acquired Lithium Resistance

June 7, 2013 · Posted in Current Treatments 

lithium pills

Lithium is one of the most important treatments available for bipolar disorder. A small percentage of patients who initially respond well to lithium may develop resistance to the drug over time. Some develop tolerance to the drug’s therapeutic effects over a period of years, seen as a gradual breaking through of manic or depressive episodes that increase in severity or frequency. Others who are good long-term responders to lithium, but stop taking lithium and then suffer relapses, fail to respond as well as they had before. In a few instances, the drug no longer helps at all. This latter form of acquired lithium resistance is called lithium discontinuation-induced refractoriness.

In a review article published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2011, this editor (Robert Post) analyzed case series and case reports that depicted these two different types of acquired lithium resistance and reported that each must be addressed in a different way. In the case of tolerance development, a temporary break from lithium may theoretically restore its effectiveness, but the typical way to treat this situation is to add additional drugs with different mechanisms of action that are not affected by the tolerance.

In those who stop effective lithium treatment and experience relapses that are no longer responsive when lithium is re-instituted, it is not clear what the best treatment approaches are. Therefore the most conservative approach to preventive treatment with lithium is to avoid discontinuing the drug. This would appear to be a generally sound principle for the treatment of recurrent unipolar or bipolar illness.  When things are going well, do not change the regimen; leave well-enough alone.  Conversely, when treatment is not optimal, as in the case of loss of drug responsiveness via tolerance, a more aggressive exploration of treatment options would be warranted.

Patients should be aware of the multiple dangers of stopping effective treatment with lithium. These include: likely relapse, perhaps the necessity of hospitalization, an increased risk of suicide, and the loss of responsiveness to lithium that appears to occur in approximately 15% of patients who stop lithium when it is working effectively.


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