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Lithium Shows Promise Against Alzheimer’s in Mouse Model

Press Release

An enzyme crucial to formation of Alzheimer’s  plaques and tangles may hold promise as a target for future medications, suggest studies in mice and cells. By blocking the enzyme, lithium stems the accumulation of beta amyloid, which forms Alzheimer’s plaques, scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report in the May 22, 2003, Nature. Inhibiting the enzyme, glycogen synthase kinase—3 alpha (GSK-3 alpha), also blocks formation of neurofibrilary tangles by the tau protein.

“Although widely used to treat bipolar disorder, lithium’s propensity to cause side-effects may limit its use in older people, who are more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease,” cautioned Peter Klein, M.D., University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who led the research team, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute on Aging (NIA). It will also be important to develop “new agents” that specifically target GSK-3 alpha, he added.

To pinpoint the enzyme’s role in the formation of amyloid plaques, the researchers first treated cells expressing the amyloid precursor protein with lithium, which they had earlier shown blocks GSK-3. Therapeutic doses of lithium inhibited the production of beta amyloid. Another GSK-3 inhibitor, structurally unrelated to lithium, also reduced production of beta amyloid, as did blocking expression of the GSK-3 alpha protein. Likewise, raising GSK-3 alpha levels enhanced beta amyloid production. These experiments established that the enzyme is required for maximal amyloid processing.

In mouse neurons expressing amyloid precursor protein, lithium significantly reduced production of beta amyloid. A therapeutic dose of lithium also markedly reduced beta amyloid production in an animal model of Alzheimer’s disease—mice carrying mutations that are known to cause inherited Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

Since certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) similarly reduce beta amyloid levels, but via a slightly different mechanism, the researchers suggest that combination therapy with lithium and NSAIDs could have an enhanced effect in reducing amyloid peptide accumulation.

Lithium also protects neurons from stimuli that trigger programmed neuronal cell death in Alzheimer’s disease. Pending development of new medications that target the enzyme, the researchers suggest that lithium “might be considered for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in younger patients with an inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease or Down’s syndrome.”

The new findings have spurred interest in whether patients taking lithium for bipolar disorder might have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, Klein noted.

Other participants in the study were: Drs. Christopher Phiel, Christina Wilson, Virginia M.-Y. Lee., University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

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NIMH and NIA are part of the NIH, the Federal Government's primary agency for biomedical and behavioral research. NIH is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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About the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): The mission of the NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and cure. For more information, visit the NIMH website.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit the NIH website .