Lithium Usage for Brain Cancer

Will using lithium after radiation restore the cognitive function of the brain following cancer? Lauren Sharkey gives more information in her article in Medical News Today which was fact-checked by Isabel Godfrey.

Many lives are saved by radiation, but it can also have a detrimental effect on the brain, and according to findings, lithium can reverse the damage. This medication could become the first pharmacological treatment of cognitive late effects in childhood cancer survivors, according to a research team at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.

Pediatric oncology has become better at saving lives in the past few years, but at a high cost, says Prof. Klas Blomgren, a consultant at the institute’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health. Nearly all children receiving radiation treatment for a brain tumor develop some serious cognitive problems that can cause difficulties in learning or socializing, and even to hold down a job later in their life. The new study had a purpose; to find a way to limit or reverse this harm. Their study appears in Molecular Psychiatry.

University of California, San Francisco, reports that more than 1/2 of those with a brain tumor undergoing radiation therapy experience cognitive decline. In 2013 a study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology reports that after such therapy, the young children did show a significant drop in IQ scores. This medication is commonly used to treat bipolar disorder and may be able to reverse this damage.

They are unsure of how lithium works, but the findings do suggest it affects two important proteins. The first is called Tppp and is necessary for helping the cells maintain their shape. GAD65 is the other which plays a role in regulating brain cell communication.

Lithium was administered to female mice 4 weeks after the animals had undergone radiation treatment in the study. They were young and received lithium until adulthood. They then compared the following administration of lithium.

An increase in new neuron formation in the hippocampus was noted during the lithium treatment. These neurons only became full nerve cells when the mice stopped receiving lithium. The mice that had undergone radiation therapy and lithium treatment achieved the same as mice not experiencing radiation in terms of memory and learning. Lithium only affected irradiated cells and the healthy cells were left relatively untouched. They conclude that lithium, given along the lines of this model, can help in healing the damage caused by radiotherapy, long after it was caused.

They hope to continue testing lithium in clinical trials. There is a concern that lithium may have a detrimental effect by multiplying the surviving tumor cells. It will be important in determining if the treatment is more appropriate a couple of years after radiation therapy when the return of a tumor is less likely. The most effective treatment schedule will also need to be confirmed.

Dr Fredda Branyon