Study: Lithium treatments found to stabilize the memory of patients with Alzheimer’s disease
Researchers from Brazil are suggesting that lithium could potentially halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In a study published in the journal Current Alzheimer Research, they wrote that the memory of Alzheimer’s patients stabilized after taking small doses of lithium. The team also reported that lithium was able to slow down the aging of brain cells. While research is still ongoing, they are optimistic that their findings provide crucial insight into Alzheimer’s, a disease that remains poorly understood.
Exploring lithium for Alzheimer’s
The study began after coauthor Marielza Nunes, a physician with the Santa Casa de Sao Paulo School of Medical Sciences, noticed that elderly patients who took microdoses of lithium as a food supplement seemed to display better memory.
Following up on this, Nunes and her fellow researchers enlisted a group of elderly patients with Alzheimer’s to try this therapy. Half of the patients took 300 micrograms of lithium daily while the other half took a placebo. All of the participants regularly completed cognitive tests over the course of 18 months.
During the study, the researchers found that those who took lithium scored consistently well in the tests, while those who took the placebo performed progressively worse.
“The memory of the patients treated with lithium stabilized from the third month [onward]. The performance of the other group declined,” said coauthor Tania Viel of the University of Sao Paulo. Viel said that they extended the treatment period to see if the observed effect holds up. When it did, they began administering lithium to all of the participants.
Lithium may slow down aging in cells
To further test lithium’s effects against Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers made mock brain cells by genetically transforming adult blood cells into astrocytes – the most abundant cell type in the central nervous system. They treated some of the astrocytes with lithium and compared them with untreated ones.
“We observed that aging was significantly reduced in the cultures that received lithium,” Viel said. She added that cellular aging is one of the key factors that give rise to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
In a second experiment — this time involving elderly mice — the researchers found that the animals that received lithium from an early age had better memory and lower anxiety levels. Viel said that the two effects were linked as increased anxiety is associated with memory loss in old age. (Related: Research shows hemin, lithium can mitigate cadmium-induced testicular damage.)
The researchers plan to use lithium in several follow-up studies to test different hypotheses for Alzheimer’s. For instance, to determine if it can reverse the cellular damage caused by oxidative stress, a key driver of cellular aging, they plan to test lithium on brain cells with hydrogen peroxide-induced oxidative damage.
“Various kinds of brain aging can lead to Alzheimer’s. We want to see how far we can protect cells with lithium,” explained Viel. The results of their second experiment were presented at the 34th Annual Meeting of the Federation of Brazilian Societies for Experimental Biology, which was held in Sao Paolo in 2019.
Another animal study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found that microdoses of lithium could potentially benefit people with early, pre-clinical Alzheimer’s. Researchers from McGill University in Canada said that lithium therapy improved working memory in mice, as well as reduced markers of brain inflammation and oxidative stress. Lithium also reduced beta-amyloid plaques, which are linked to Alzheimer’s.
Lithium has already been used to treat mental disorders. In fact, patients with bipolar I disorder are usually prescribed 60 milligrams of lithium per day to help manage their condition. Based on these new findings, it appears that lithium is capable of providing more benefits for the brain than previously thought.