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Lithium Increases Gray Matter in Bipolar Brains

Researchers have shown that lithium, the standard treatment for bipolar disorder, increases the amount// of gray matter in the brains of patients with the illness.

The research is featured in the July issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry and is currently available online.

Carrie Bearden, a clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, and Paul Thompson, associate professor of neurology at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, used a novel method of three-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map the entire surface of the brain in people diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

When the researchers compared the brains of bipolar patients on lithium with those of people without the disorder and those of bipolar patients not on lithium, they found that the volume of gray matter in the brains of those on lithium was as much as 15 percent higher in areas that are critical for attention and controlling emotions.

The neurobiological underpinnings of bipolar disorder — an illness marked by a roller coaster of emotions between mania and depression — are not well understood. Nor is it understood how lithium works in controlling these severe mood swings, even though it has been the standard treatment for some 50 years. These new findings suggest that lithium may work by increasing the amount of gray matter in particular brain areas, which in turn suggests that existing gray matter in these regions of bipolar brains may be underused or dysfunctional.

This is the first time researchers were able to look at specific regions of the brain that may be affected by lithium treatment in living human subjects, said Bearden.

“We used a novel method for brain imaging analysis that is exquisitely sensitive to subtle differences in brain structure,” she said. “This type of imaging has not been used before to study bipolar patients. We also revealed how commonly used medicatio
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