Depression drug could reduce dementia risk

Photo credit: Unsplash/Towfiqu barbhuiya

A drug commonly prescribed to treat bipolar disorder and depression may lower the risk of developing dementia, a new study has found. Lithium could be the subject of clinical trials as a preventative treatment for the neurodegenerative condition, according to scientists from the University of Cambridge.

Previous studies had suggested lithium could be a potential treatment for those in the early stages of dementia, but the research had been on a small scale. The latest research analysed the health records of nearly 30,000 people over the age of 50 and found those who’d been prescribed lithium were less likely to develop dementia.

Shanquan Chen from the University of Cambridge’s department of psychiatry and author of the study, said: “Bipolar disorder and depression are considered to put people at increased risk of dementia, so we had to make sure to account for this in our analysis.”

The analysis was of anonymised data from patients in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust who had accessed mental health services between 2005 and 2019. None of the patients had previously been diagnosed with dementia or mild cognitive impairment.

Out of 29,618 patients, 548 had received lithium, they had an average age of 74 and 40 per cent were male. The researchers found 11.2 per cent of those who had not been prescribed lithium went on to be diagnosed with dementia, while 9.7 per cent treated with lithium developed the condition.

Clinical trials on a larger scale are now required to determine if lithium could be an effective treatment for dementia. There is currently no cure for the condition, which 55 million people across the world have been diagnosed with, but early detection can help doctors to slow its progression.

Dr Chen said: “The number of people with dementia continues to grow, which puts huge pressure on healthcare systems. It’s been estimated that delaying the onset of dementia by just five years could reduce its prevalence and economic impact by as much as 40 per cent.”

Alzheimer’s Research UK has announced it’s funding work at the University of Newcastle looking into the potential of lithium as a treatment for Alzheimer’s, which is the most common form of dementia. The scientists on this project are using a new brain imaging technique to monitor patients’ progress.

Scientists across the world are tasked with finding ways to treat dementia, as the World Health Organization predicts 139 million people will be living with the condition globally by 2050. One avenue of research that could provide hope is existing drugs that are already used to treat other conditions, as is the case with lithium.

The benefit of such medicines being used to treat dementia is that they’re already been found to be relatively safe. They’re also likely to be cheaper than brand new alternatives, as well as able to come to market much more quickly.

Lithium is already prescribed for depression and bipolar disorder, but could potentially be used to prevent dementia in future.