According to scientists Alzheimer’s disease, a progressively damaging motor neuron condition, could be treated by lithium, a naturally occurring element that is extremely inexpensive and already in use for other psychiatric disorders.
Lithium has been in use to treat mood swings and bipolar disorder and now, researchers at Sao Paulo University in Brazil, led by Dr Orestes Forlenza have discovered that the pills slowed down memory loss in the elderly, reducing their cognitive decline. They also noted that there was a decrease in build-up of tangles of damaging proteins called phospho- tau in people's brain fluid which characterized Alzheimer's disease.
For the study the team examined 41 people over the age of 60 with mild cognitive impairment, out of whom 21 took low doses of lithium every day for a year. All went through tests of memory and attention and a sample of their brain fluid was analyzed for tau concentrations. Although all the participants showed a decline in memory function over the year, those taking lithium showed less of a decline than those taking the placebo. Those taking lithium also had less of a form of the tau protein, pTau – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease – in their cerebrospinal fluid. The findings are published today in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The researchers now want to see larger studies to investigate whether lithium could have potential as a preventative treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Dr Orestes Forlenza, who led the research, said, “This study supports the idea that giving lithium to a person who is at risk of Alzheimer’s disease may have a protective effect, and slow down the progression of memory loss to dementia.”
Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said, “Although these are encouraging results, this was a small study, and it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions from these findings. We need to see much larger, long-term studies carried out before we can know whether lithium could help prevent Alzheimer’s…There are currently 820,000 people affected by dementia, yet research is desperately underfunded. We must invest in more research if we are to find an effective treatment that is so urgently needed.”
Professor Allan Young, a psychiatrist from Imperial College London, described the study as “encouraging” - and particularly interesting because no pharmaceutical company has a patent on lithium, meaning it is very cheap to prescribe. He added, “This trial adds to the increasing evidence that lithium may have beneficial effects on the brain and begs to be replicated in further randomised trials.” Dr Anne Corbett, research manager at the Alzheimer's Society, added, “We need more, larger clinical trials to test existing drugs like lithium if we are to find better treatments for people with Alzheimer’s. Yet such trials are very expensive. We need greater investment in this area in order to help us develop better treatments for people with this devastating condition.”