Molecular Mechanism Behind Lithium’s Effectiveness Identified

lithium
Credit to flickr.com user mattza. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Scientists have identified the molecular mechanism behind lithium’s effectiveness in treating bipolar disorder in an international study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), Yokohama School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and UC San Diego collaborated on the study, which used human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPS cells) to map lithium’s response pathway.

Lithium is a salt which has long been considered the gold-standard for bipolar treatment. The side effects–such as nausea, weight gain, and birth defects–are a trial for many people who take the drug. Only about one-third of people who suffer from bipolar disorder respond to lithium treatment. Before researchers at the Salk institute developed a test to predict who will respond to lithium with 92 percent accuracy, there was no test, and the drug’s effect was only found through a trial-and-error process which could take months or years.

In the study, scientists used hiPs cells created from lithium-responsive and non-responsive patience to observe a physiological difference in a protein called CRMP2: the protein was in a much more inactive state in responsive patients. However, when the researchers applied lithium, CRMP2 worked properly. So the study shows that bipolar disorder has a physiological–not necessarily genetic–cause.

This study is the first to explain the molecular basis of bipolar disorder. Scientists hope to use the results to develop a blood test for the disease, as well as further tests that can predict whether people who suffer from bipolar disorder will respond to lithium. Research leading from this study may also discover safer and more effective drugs to treat the disorder.

Edited to Add: Here is the link to the study, as requested.

Author: Cassandra Stout

Freelance writer Cassandra Stout blogs weekly at the award-winning Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses. She also blogs monthly at the International Bipolar Foundation website (IPBF.org). Her work has been published in the anthology, How the Light Gets In. Cassandra holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Creative Writing and Journalism. She has been a judge for the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association literary contest for nine years, where her memoir, Committed, recently placed as a finalist. She balances her literary work with raising her children, feeding her cat, and managing her bipolar disorder.

8 thoughts on “Molecular Mechanism Behind Lithium’s Effectiveness Identified”

  1. Cassandra, getting a lot of questions on my Facebook page about this study showing that bipolar has physiological and not necessarily genetic cause. Could you please link to the study? I’m not able to intelligently answer questions, aside from referring back to this article. Thanks!

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