When I say the word “Lithium” many of you may make a loose association in your head with the word “depression” – and you’d be right. Since 1949 when Australian psychiatrist John Cade first published a paper on the use of Lithium in the treatment of acute mania it has grown to become one of the most widely used drugs for treating bipolar disorder, a condition characterised by both manic and depressive symptoms. But it wasn’t until recently that scientist discovered how Lithium could be useful in the treatment of an entirely different type of Disorder – Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) is a group of conditions that occur in children whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy and generally results in children with varying levels of physical and neurological deficits. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome occurs because alcohol passes straight through the mother’s bloodstream to the baby during pregnancy. Symptoms of FAS present differently depending on how much alcohol was consumed.
In a recent study, a group of researchers at the NYU School of Medicine mimicked the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome by exposing baby mice to alcohol 15 minutes after they were born. Some of these mice were then given Lithium while the others were left untreated. Typically when mice are given alcohol they demonstrate hyperactivity, poor sleeping patterns, memory loss and cognitive deficits as adults. BUT the mice treated with Lithium didn’t show sleep disturbance or hyperactivity and where 25% less likely to have memory problems or cognitive deficits when compared with the untreated mice.
Disrupted sleep is a major factor in FASD – and as we know poor sleep is bad for the brain and chronically poor sleep may result in cognitive damage. Mice who received lithium slept uninterrupted for up to 10 hours a day, while the untreated mice woke up as frequently as 50 times in an hour (that’s almost every minute!). Dr Donald Wilson, co-senior investigator of the study explained: “Our study showed that lithium chloride prevented many of the damaging neurological effects of alcohol abuse on the still-developing brain, especially the impact on the parts of the brain controlling sleep.”
These findings are extremely exciting as it suggests that Lithium chloride and its chemical effect on the brain could play an important role in developing effective treatments for one of the most devastating syndromes affecting vulnerable populations, but it is important to keep in mind that Lithium should never be used as a preventative measure! It is not safe to use during pregnancy. Abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy is the only way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome.