Lithium can slow memory loss according to study

Lithium treatment may slow the development of dementia, according to a study published on Wednesday 27 April 2011 in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Forlenza OV et al. ‘Disease-modifying properties for long-term lithium treatment for amnestic mild cognitive impairment: randomised controlled trial.’ British Journal of Psychiatry 2011; 198: 351 -356

Researchers from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, carried out a small-scale study with 41 people. All the participants were over the age of 60 and had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.

After 12 months, the researchers found that all the participants experienced a decline in their cognitive function. However, the decline was significantly smaller in the group treated with lithium than in the placebo group. Lithium treatment was also associated with a significant decrease in concentrations of phospho-tau – a major hallmark of Alzheimer’s – in people’s spinal fluid.

Previous research has shown that lithium can influence tau levels in models of Alzheimer’s disease but small clinical trials in people with dementia have so far been unsuccessful.

Alzheimer’s Society comment

‘We know lithium has effects on the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease in the lab but to date, clinical trials in people with Alzheimer’s have not been promising. This study is the first to test lithium in people who have mild cognitive impairment, which can lead to Alzheimer’s. These results are interesting as they suggest lithium could help slow the development of the early stages of the disease. However this is a small, preliminary trial and there are still concerns over the side effects caused by lithium.

‘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.’

Dr Anne Corbett, Research Manager, Alzheimer’s Society