Lithium, used for decades to treat manic depression, has been shown in mice to block the production of proteins that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, suggesting a future role for the drug in treating the disease, a new study said.

The researchers who conducted the experiments stressed that lithium has not been shown to work on Alzheimer's patients.

Lithium, though widely used to treat mental illness, has many side effects, including kidney damage. The problems are most pronounced in the elderly, who also face the greatest risk for Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's is marked by the build up in the brain of one protein, called amyloid beta, outside nerve cells and a second, called tau, that forms tangles in the cells. Alzheimer's affects about 12 million people worldwide.

Other possible therapies, including an experimental vaccine, have blocked the production of either amyloid beta or tau; lithium appears to tackle both, said the study's co-author, Dr. Peter Klein of the University of Pennsylvania.

Details of the mouse experiments appear in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

"Potentially, lithium could be used to reverse both the pathological features of Alzheimer's disease," Klein said.

Klein and his colleagues used mice bred to overproduce a protein that when modified forms amyloid beta. Many scientists believe that the build-up of amyloid beta causes the debilitating effects of the memory-robbing disease. The mouse experiments showed that lithium disrupts that modification process.

Klein and colleagues also showed that lithium disrupts the modification of tau. While it is unclear what role tau plays in cells, the protein invariably piles up in lockstep with the progression of Alzheimer's.

Other scientists said the Penn results were encouraging, in part because lithium is a known drug.

"It seems you could block with a single medicine both of the major structural manifestations of the disease. This would be the first time that has been shown," said Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, who was not connected with the study.

In both cases, lithium targets an enzyme called GSK-3 that facilitates the modification of the proteins. Identification of GSK-3 as a target could pave the way for other drugs that disrupt the production of both proteins, Klein said.

Also, lithium does not disrupt the processing of another protein called notch, as do other potential Alzheimer's drugs. Notch is vital for the production of blood cells.
Zaven Khachaturian, senior science adviser to the Alzheimer's Association, envisioned studies that would look at the prevalence of Alzheimer's in people who already take lithium to control the mood swings associated with manic depression.

"But the more exciting part has to do with the science - you could find an easy way to control the production not only of amyloid beta, but also the tau. The chemistry of it is very exciting, very tantalizing," said Khachaturian, former director of the office of Alzheimer's research at the National Institutes of Health.

Readers of The Alzheimer's Alternative will know that I already recommend lithium as it three important roles to play in protecting the brain. Firstly, studies have shown that it can actually increase the size of the brain (this counteracts the natural shrinkage that occurs with age) by not only slowing cell death but also by promoting cell growth. Secondly, it offers protection against toxins and thirdly helps form proteins that further protect the brain.

With Alzheimer's sufferers lithium's role becomes even more important. It has a role in preventing the build up of amyloid proteins that form the plaques, which are the signature of Alzheimer's disease, whilst also chelating heavy metals (particularly aluminium) so that they can be more easily removed from the body. In fact one researcher believes that lithium remains one of the most potent chelators that we have at our disposal for removing aluminium from the body.

The lithium salts that I recommend are far more easily absorbed by the cells of the body than those prescribed pharmaceutically. These supplements are lithium orotate or lithium aspartate (usually orotate) and the dose that I suggest patients take is to start off on 5mg a day and then to build it up to no more than 20mgs over several weeks.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Steffan H. Abel D.C. has been involved in Chiropractic and healthcare research for over 20 years. He has run his own successful practice in the north of England for the last 19 years. During which time he has treated over 10,000 patients and given over 100,000 treatments. He has lectured and taught extensively in both Europe and America to students, chiropractors and medical doctors.

He has studied Hypnotherapy, N.L.P. and qualified as a Life Coach. He has also studied various Chiropractic-based treatments (gaining a M.Sc. in post graduate Clinical Chiropractic in 2003) as well as energy therapies such as Seichem and Reiki. In 2001 he became a Fellow of the College of Chiropractors and a Fellow of the Association of Osteomyology and in 2007 became a Fellow of the European Academy of Chiropractic.

In his spare time he spends between 15 and 25 hours per week researching all areas of “alternative” and allopathic healthcare in order to bring the best advice to his patients through his practice and writing and has just finished his latest book The Alzheimer's Alternative ( When not working he is to be found enjoying life with Sue, his partner, – whom he loves tremendously!

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