Lithium Use in Special Populations

By Mohandas, E.; Rajmohan, V. | Indian Journal of Psychiatry, July-September 2007 | Go to article overview

Lithium Use in Special Populations

Mohandas, E., Rajmohan, V., Indian Journal of Psychiatry

Byline: E. Mohandas, V. Rajmohan

Lithium, a monovalent cation, was first used for the treatment of mania in the 1940s. Half a century into its use, the drug continues to be the preeminent choice for bipolar disorder with antimanic, antidepressant (modest) and antisuicidal property. Lithium is the "gold standard" mood stabilizer against which potential mood stabilizer agents are judged. The therapeutic uses of lithium also include use as an augmenting agent in depression, schizoaffective disorder, aggression, impulse control disorder, eating disorders, attention deficit disorder and in certain subsets of alcoholism. Lithium has been used in many medical disorders, especially cluster headache and dermatological disorders (seborrheic dermatitis, eczematoid dermatitis, genital herpes).[sup] [1] The drug is however associated with neurologic, endocrine, cardiovascular, renal, dermatologic and gastrointestinal adverse effects and possible teratogenicity.


Lithium was first discovered and defined by Johan August Arfvedson in 1817 when he did an analysis of the mineral petalite [LiAl(Si2O5)2]. Petalite was first found by Brazilian scientist Jose Bonifacio Andrade e Silva in 1800. Lepidolite, spodumene, petalite and amblygonite are the more important minerals containing lithium. It was Arfwedson's laboratory chief John Jacob Berzelius who named this alkali metal "lithion." Arfvedson was never able to fully isolate lithium, and it wasn't until 1855 that it was isolated by William Thomas Brande. Brande and Sir Humphrey Davy earlier had done electrolysis on lithium oxide in 1818. Lithium was first produced commercially in 1923 by Metallgesellschaft AG.[sup] [2]

The use of lithium for medicinal purposes can be traced back 1,800 years to the Greek physician Galen, who treated patients with mania by having them bathe in alkaline springs and drink the water, which probably contained lithium. In 1843 Alexander Ure introduced lithium into modern medicine, and he showed the in vitro reduction of weight of a uric acid bladder stone in a lithium carbonate solution. Sir Alfred Garrod later discovered that gouty uric acid deposits also were soluble in lithium solution. The view in that time was that uric acid imbalances caused a wide range of diseases, and Armand Trousseau and Alexander Haig proposed that mania and depression also may result from this imbalance and lithium may be effective in these conditions. In the 1840s, lithium was mixed with carbonate or citrate to form a salt and was used to treat gout, epilepsy, diabetes, cancer and insomnia. In the 1870s, the then American Surgeon General William Hammond had provided anecdotal evidence for the use of lithium bromide in the treatment of acute mania. In the 1880s and 1890s the Lange brothers Carl and Fritz used lithium in depression, and Carl Lange was the first to systematically use lithium in the acute and prophylactic treatment of depression.[sup] [2] The introduction of lithium preparations and tablets in the 1900s brought to the fore the toxic effects of the drug; and there were reports of weakness, tremor, diarrhea, vomiting and deaths. The drug disappeared from the British Pharmacopoeia by 1932, but later in the 1940s it was used as a sodium substitute in low sodium diets; but the reports of severe intoxication led to its removal from American markets in 1949. [sup] [1]

The appearance in 1949 in the Medical Journal of Australia of a paper entitled "Lithium salts in the treatment of psychotic excitement" by John F. J. Cade was an unspectacular entry into a new era of psychiatry. Manic patients showed improvement, with the patient becoming calmer after four to five days. There was no improvement in the excited schizophrenic patients, though there was a calming effect. There was no improvement or deepening of depression. The paper also gave details of initial dosage, maintenance doses, appearance of toxic symptoms and warning about lithium over-dosage. …

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