Researchers believe that they have a breakthrough – finding that lithium concentrations in the brain are connected to depression
Lithium is an antique way that mental disturbances would be treated. For decades, depression resulted in doctors assigning high concentrations of lithium salts as a ‘cure’.
However, even now, the actual role of lithium in the brain is unknown.
Physicists and neuropathologists at the Technical University of Munich joined forensic medical experts at Ludwig-Maximilian-University of Munich (LMU) and an expert team from the Research Neutron Source Heinz Maier-Leibnitz (FRM II) to develop a method which could determine the distribution of lithium in the human brain.
The team wants to be able to create suggestions for treatment and understand the physiological processes involved in depression.
Suicidal brain versus non-suicidal brain
The scientists investigated the brain of a suicidal patient and compared it with two control persons. The investigation focused on the ratio of the lithium concentration in white brain matter to the concentration in the grey matter of the brain.
The experiment focused on the ratio of the lithium concentration in white brain matter to the concentration in the grey matter of the brain. Scientists looked at regions in the brain assumed to be responsible for processing feelings, but they took 150 samples from various regions.
“One lithium isotope is especially good at capturing neutrons; it then decays into a helium atom and a tritium atom,” said Dr Roman Gernhäuser of the Central Technology Laboratory of the TUM Department of Physics. The two decay products can explain where exactly the lithium is located in the brain section.
Since the lithium concentration in the brain is usually very low, it is also very difficult to understand.
Dr Jutta Schöpfer of the LMU Munich Institute for Forensic Medicine, said: “Until now it wasn’t possible to detect such small traces of lithium in the brain in a spatially resolved manner. One special aspect of the investigation using neutrons is that our samples are not destroyed. That means we can repeatedly examine them several times over a longer period of time.”
‘More lithium’ in the white matter of a healthy person
Dr Roman Gernhäuser further commented: “We saw that there was significantly more lithium present in the white matter of the healthy person than in the gray matter. By contrast, the suicidal patient had a balanced distribution, without a measurable systematic difference.”
Dr Schöpfer further said: “Our results are fairly groundbreaking, because we were able for the first time to ascertain the distribution of lithium under physiological conditions.
“Since we were able to ascertain trace quantities of the element in the brain without first administering medication and because the distribution is so clearly different, we assume that lithium indeed has an important function in the body.”