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A new technique is allowing researchers to measure endogenous lithium concentrations in the human brain for the very first time. To test the technique researchers compared lithium levels in post-mortem brain tissue between a suicidal subject and a pair of healthy controls, revealing differences that affirmed the link between lithium levels and mental health.
Alongside being a vital component of batteries, lithium is perhaps best known as a treatment for bipolar disorder. Despite lithium’s proven mood-stabilizing benefits it can quickly become toxic if administered in high doses.
Epidemiological studies have previously found local communities with high natural levels of lithium in their water supply tend to report lower rates of suicide, dementia and violent crime. This had led some scientists to suggest adding trace amounts of lithium to water supplies could improve a community’s mental health.
The new proof-of-concept study compared brain tissue samples from three deceased subjects. One of the subjects died from suicide, while the other two died from natural causes and served as controls. The primary goal was to investigate the ratio of lithium concentration between white and gray matter.
“We saw that there was significantly more lithium present in the white matter of the healthy person than in the gray matter,” explains Gernhäuser. “By contrast, the suicidal patient had a balanced distribution, without a measurable systematic difference.”