Lithium was introduced in the mid-twentieth century as a treatment for manic and depressive episodes of bipolar disorder. Today, it is still one of the most effective drug treatments for manic-depressive illness.
Over the last two decades, scientists have made key discoveries about how lithium works in the treatment of bipolar disorder.
dailyRx Insight: Current medications for bipolar may be working.
At the same time, researchers were discovering decreases in brain volume in people with bipolar disorder. Studies were showing reductions in the size of brain regions associated with mood regulation.
In an effort to build upon these discoveries, researchers from around the world pooled together their brain imaging data from adults with bipolar disorder.
With this data, the researchers conducted a mega-analysis to examine the differences in brain structure between people with bipolar disorder and people without bipolar disorder.
Their findings show that bipolar patients had increased volumes in the right lateral ventricular, left temporal lobe, and right putamen parts of the brain.
Compared to healthy individuals, those with bipolar disorder who were not taking lithium exhibited a decrease in cerebral and hippocampal volumes.
The key finding of this study, however, was that bipolar patients who were taking lithium showed substantially increased volumes of the hippocampus and amygdala, compared to healthy individuals and bipolar patients not taking lithium.
According to the editor of the journal Biological Psychiatry, Dr. John Krystal, this mega-analysis is important because it provides strong evidence of an association between bipolar disorder and structural alterations to different regions of the brain.
More importantly, however, the study showed that current treatments for bipolar disorder may be helping to decrease these brain deficits.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of elevated or irritable mood, alternating with depression. In the United States, an estimated 5.7 million adults suffer from bipolar disorder.
The results of this collaborative study are published in Biological Psychiatry.