Well, this is a spectacular reversal! We have always worried about Lithium causing “brain damage,” right? It’s toxic, you say, and it’s bad for the brain! Well, I have been hearing a different tune for the past 5-7 years: Lithium is neuroprotective. That means it helps the brain tolerate the neurological impact of bipolar disorder (BD)–BD is know to cause cognitive decline, probably due to oxidative/inflammatory effects, inhibition of BDNF (brain derived nerve growth factor) and Bcl-2 activity, and promotion of glycogen synthase kinase-3 (GSK-3) which leads to the famous plagues and tangles of Alzheimers disease.
Lithium(!) appears to block GSK-3 and hence block Alzheimers (preliminary data is mixed with low dose Lithium with blood levels between 0.25-0.5 nmol/L). Lithium (!) appears to reverse BD effects on BDNF and Bcl-2, causing them to revert to normal and protect the brain.
This is very exciting. The study investigators are clear that doctors are not supposed to treat Alzheimers in the elderly with Lithium–too difficult, often a lot of side effects and poor tolerance–but we are urged to keep it in mind for bipolar disorder and cognitive decline. Bipolar has a higher rate than the general population for Alzheimer’s (it is a multi-system disease of the body); lithium appears to reduce this risk back to normal after about ten years of treatment.
I think I have new found respect of this little molecule, third on the periodic table of elements, third on the scene after the Big Bang, after Hydrogen and Helium, and naturally found in our water, soil, bodies, and diet: yes, we are supposed to have trace amounts of it in our bodies,–as often seen with hair analysis.
It makes me go…hmmm.