The impact of lithium prophylaxis on the course of bipolar disorder: a review of the research evidence


Corresponding author: Mario Maj, Clinica Psichiatrica, Primo Policlinico Universitario, Largo Madonna delle Grazie, 80138 Napoli, Italy. Fax: +39 81 5666523; e-mail:


A critical review is provided of the available research evidence concerning the efficacy and effectiveness of lithium prophylaxis in bipolar disorder. It is emphasized that, in spite of the limitations of available placebo-controlled trials and naturalistic studies, lithium is the only drug whose prophylactic activity in bipolar disorder is convincingly proved, and remains the first-choice medication in the long-term treatment of bipolar patients. The impact of lithium prophylaxis is likely to be less significant on atypical and comorbid cases of bipolar disorder than in typical manic–depressive illness, but the superiority of other medications over lithium in the long-term treatment of those cases is at present not convincingly proved by research. Currently available research evidence does not seem to support the idea that lithium exerts its prophylactic effect on relapses but not on recurrences of bipolar disorder. Clinicians should be aware of the fact that the drop-out rate in bipolar patients receiving long-term lithium prophylaxis is high even if treatment surveillance is accurate, and that complete suppression of recurrences is a relatively rare outcome of prophylaxis.