Lithium May Help Prevent Brain Cell Loss Associated with Parkinson’s Disease

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Lithium belongs to a class of medications used to treat and prevent episodes of mania in people with bipolar disorder. The drug works by decreasing abnormal activity in the brain. Researchers from The Buck Institute for Research on Aging have found that lithium may also prevent brain damage associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, incurable neurodegenerative disorder that affects 1 million Americans. It is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease, with 50,000 to 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Lithium has recently been suggested to be neuroprotective and may also be of benefit in other diseases such as Huntington’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

An earlier study this year found that lithium delayed the onset of full-blown Alzheimer’s disease in patients with mild cognitive impairment.

Read: Scientists Discover How Lithium Works, Finally

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Lead author and Professor Julie Andersen PhD tested lithium in laboratory mice, giving them the drug at subclinical levels – the “low end of the therapeutic range” – as the overuse of lithium has been linked to hyperthyroidism and kidney toxicity. They found that the medication “profoundly prevents the aggregation of toxic proteins and cell loss associated with Parkinson’s disease.”

Andersen and the Buck Institute researchers are working toward initiating a Phase IIa clinical trial of lithium in humans in conjunction with standard Parkinson’s therapies. They hope that one day lithium could be used by doctors to halt or slow the progression of Parkinson’s in patients already suffering from the disease. “The fact that lithium’s safety profile in humans is well understood,” says Andersen, “greatly reduces trial risk and lowers a significant hurdle to getting it into the clinic.”

Read: Safinamide May Reduce Involuntary Movements in Parkinson's Disease

Brand names of lithium include Eskalith and Lithobid. The drug was first approved in 1970 to treat bipolar disorder, but according to Andersen, some Parkinson’s patients are already taking the drug “off-label” to treat symptoms.

Journal Reference:
Yong-Hwan Kim, Anand Rane, Stephanie Lussier and Julie K. Andersen. Lithium protects against oxidative stress-mediated cell death in α-synuclein-overexpressing in vitro and in vivo models of Parkinson's disease. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 24 June 2011 DOI:10.1002/jnr.22700

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