The following information is excerpted from a recent NY Times article:
Lithium is a naturally occurring element, not a molecule like most medications, and it is present in the United States, depending on the geographic area, at concentrations that can range widely, from undetectable to around .170 milligrams per liter. This amount is less than a thousandth of the minimum daily dose given for bipolar disorders and for depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants. Evidence is slowly accumulating that relatively tiny doses of lithium can have beneficial effects. They appear to decrease suicide rates significantly and may even promote brain health and improve mood.
The scientific story of lithium’s role in normal development and health began unfolding in the 1970s. Studies at that time found that animals that consumed diets with minimal lithium had higher mortality rates, as well as abnormalities of reproduction and behavior.
Researchers began to ask whether low levels of lithium might correlate with poor behavioral outcomes in humans. In 1990, a study was published looking at 27 Texas counties with a variety of lithium levels in their water. The authors discovered that people whose water had the least amount of lithium had significantly greater levels of suicide, homicide and rape than the people whose water had the higher levels of lithium. The group whose water had the highest lithium level had nearly 40 percent fewer suicides than that with the lowest lithium level.
Almost 20 years later, a Japanese study that looked at 18 municipalities with more than a million inhabitants over a five-year period confirmed the earlier study’s finding: Suicide rates were inversely correlated with the lithium content in the local water supply.
More recently, there have been corroborating studies in Greece and Austria.
A recent review of epidemiological studies of lithium in drinking water reported that 9 out of 11 studies found an association between higher levels of lithium in local water and “beneficial clinical, behavioral, legal and medical outcomes.”
Trying to make sense of their results, the authors of the Japanese study speculated that lithium exposure, even in these tiny amounts, might actually be neuroprotective or even enhance the growth of neurons. Other studies have supported their speculation; lithium appears to promote the health, growth and resilience of neurons, reducing stress-induced damage.
One study found that at the higher therapeutic doses used to treat mood disorders, brain scans of bipolar patients treated with lithium actually had increased areas of gray matter (neurons) in their brains, compared with bipolar patients who had not been on lithium and with normal controls. The authors speculated that lithium might protect the brain, perhaps promoting neuronal growth.
This information came to me through Duane Law at
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