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May 21, 2003

Lithium May Halt Progression of Alzheimer's Disease in Animal Models Says A University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine Study

(Philadelphia, Pa.) -- Lithium has been found to block the formation of amyloid plaques in the brains of animal models with a form of Alzheimer's disease, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The study was led by Peter Klein, MD, PhD, of Penn's Department of Medicine and Division of Hematology and Oncology, and Virginia M.Y. Lee, PhD, of Penn's Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research and Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Other Penn collaborators on the study included Christopher J. Phiel, PhD and Christiana A. Wilson, PhD. The findings will appear in the May 22 issue of Nature.

The current study advances the previous work of Klein and Lee that showed that lithium blocked the accumulation of protein deposits that form neurofibrillary tangles. Alzheimer's disease is associated with the development of both amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in patients with the disease. It is characterized by a gradual loss of brain cells leading to dementia. As it progresses over three to 20 years, the loss of brain function leads to serious disability and death.

"Our current study, combined with earlier work, shows that the two processes associated with the progression of Alzheimer's disease - the build-up of protein deposits known as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles - can be inhibited with lithium," said Klein, who is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

"Our findings have interesting implications for the potential use of lithium in preventing or disrupting the growth of theses plaques and tangles in patients, since lithium is known to be relatively safe in humans when administered properly. However, lithium does have side effects that are more common in older patients. Our work points to an unexpected target for the development of new, more specific drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease," added Klein. Lithium is currently used to treat patients with bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression.

While concluding that lithium may prove effective in preventing or slowing the onset of Alzheimer's disease, Klein cautioned that much more work needed to be done, including studies with patients.

The work was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging.


PENN Medicine is a $2.2 billion enterprise dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and quality patient care. PENN Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System (created in 1993 as the nation's first integrated academic health system). Today, Penn's School of Medicine is ranked #4 in the nation in U.S. News & World Report's most recent ranking of top research-oriented medical schools; and ranked #2 in the nation for receipt of NIH research funds. It supports 1400-fulltime faculty and 700 students, is recognized worldwide for its superior education and training of the next generation of physician/scientists and leaders of academic medicine. Penn's Health System consists of four wholly-owned hospitals (including its flagship Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, rated one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report); a faculty practice plan; a primary-care provider network; three multi-specialty satellite facilities; and home healthcare, hospice and long-term care.




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