Neuroprotective Properties of Lithium


Neuroprotective properties of lithium refers to ways the mood stabilizer lithium chloride may affect the nervous system in positive ways i.e. protect or help regenerate damaged neurons or glial cells. The drug is known to be very toxic, so how could that be a good thing?

A Neuron - Specialized Cells of the Nervous System.
A Neuron – Specialized Cells of the Nervous System.

The below is quoted from a Journal of Clinical Neuroscience article:

“By definition, neuroprotection is an effect that may result in salvage, recovery or regeneration of the nervous system, its cells, structure and function. It is thought that there are many neurochemical modulators of nervous system damage.”

Source: Neuroprotection and Neurogenerative Disease.

Lithium Used for Bipolar Disorder is Neurotoxic, Not Neuroprotective. Click To Tweet

Lithium Chloride Increases Thickness of Myelin Sheath

One study used mice and created a facial nerve injury in half their face. Thy then treated half the mice with lithium chloride and the other half – the control group – received saline solution (placebo).

The mice who received the drug recovered more quickly than the placebo group. They had a thicker myelin sheath after recovery and “… the percentage of myelinated axons doubled after LiCl treatment.”

They created the injury in the mice. With humans it’s a little more complicated. There are many ways someone can be affected by a peripheral nerve injury.

Quoted from the study:

“Acquired neuropathies may be caused by aberrant immune responses, local injury, ischemia, metabolic disorders, toxic agents, or viral infections. To date, few therapeutic treatments are available. They are mostly based on anti-inflammatory agents.”

They also damaged the sciatic nerve of mice, gave half LiCL, half placebo for one week then killed the mice and performed tests.

They report the results as follows:

“Taken together, our observations demonstrate an increase of myelin sheath diameter around the axons of sciatic nerve in LiCl-treated mice vs. placebo-treated ones.”

Source: Lithium Enhances Remyelination of Peripheral Nerves.

Lithium Was Banned Due to Deaths From Toxicity – Now Health Promoting?

This is the problem. The science above may be sound and applicable for a short course of treatment for nerve damaged patients, but then using that as validation for long-term use for bipolar disorder is a huge leap.

The mice study was for 14 days. I initially improved with lithium treatment – maybe it should have then been discontinued after a few weeks or month. That’s as logical to think as not… based on the research.

As is the norm, I was kept on lithium though got sicker and sicker (increase in depression with suicidal ideation) and then prescribed trials of other meds (antidepressants) to treat the unwanted effects of the lithium.

After a year I’d had enough. I ended care, started reading and learning about the phony Chemical Imbalance Theory, lack of scientific credibility for psychotropic medications and how my experience getting worse was common.

Related post: There Are No Abnormalities in a Mentally Ill Person’s Brain.

What would have happened to the mice if they were kept on the lithium long-term? The mice used in the study were 8 weeks old. An 8 week old mouse is equivalent to a 20 year old human. Source: Mouse Age Calculator.

That’s young.

Mice live on average 2 years – equivalent to a 70 year old. I’d like to see a similar study that doubles the length of time of lithium treatment (say… 28 days or more) then reports effects seen.

Will the mice die? Was the amount of drug given to the mice equivalent to human dosages? Any adverse effects observed and noted?

Manic Depression is Not a Lithium Deficiency

This is a more applicable way to think about lithium related to bipolar disorder. As once a doctor gets you on it and sees initial improvement, they automatically think you ‘need the drug’ and should take it for life.

There’s no research supporting that. There is no ‘lack of lithium chloride’ identified in a bipolar disorder sufferer. Yes, it calms someone down during a manic episode but long-term adverse effects are many.

And it is not in any way a ‘miracle drug’. Here is what British psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff, M.D. has to say.

“The sedative and slowing effects of lithium, although usually described as side effects, account for why lithium can help reduce arousal and activity levels in people with acute manic symptoms. So there is nothing magic or specific about lithium’s action in manic depression.”

“In theory, these effects might suppress the emergence of a manic episode, as well as reduce the severity of symptoms once an episode has started. The evidence that long-term lithium treatment reduces the occurrence of manic or depressive episodes is actually very weak, however.

Source: Reasons Not to Believe in Lithium.

Lithium is a Neurotoxin, Not Neuroprotective

After my year of high-dose lithium treatment were some of my nerve cells covered in a thicker myelin sheath? Do I really give a rat’s arse, or should anyone?

I wasn’t in treatment for nerve damage to tissues, I was in treatment for a mood disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a cyclic condition. Illness states may be severe but there are periods of normal functioning in-between episodes. It’s not a permanent impairment of nerve tissue of the brain that somehow needs regneneration.

Lithium actually causes tissue damage. Neurotoxicity is a well documented effect.

“Lithium salts have been used in treatment of depression and bipolar disorder for more than
50 years. Neurotoxic side-effects such as nystagmus, ataxia, tremor, fasciculation, clonus, seizure and even coma have been well described in the literature.”

Source: A Rare Neurological Complication Due to Lithium Poisoning.

It also leads to diabetes and causes kidney damage – which can become permanent.

“Lithium may cause problems with kidney health. Kidney damage due to lithium may include acute (sudden) or chronic (long-term) kidney disease and kidney cysts. The amount of kidney damage depends on how long you have been taking lithium. It is possible to reverse kidney damage caused by lithium early in treatment, but the damage may become permanent over time.”

Source: Lithium and Chronic Kidney Disease.

There is no way to predict the course of the illness, it varies from person to person. And psychotropic medications are a guessing game, a crapshoot style of treatment.

Why we need to have a better understanding of bipolar disorder and more effective treatment options that lead to better long-term outcomes.

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