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Lithium – a continuing story in the treatment of bipolar disorder


Guy Goodwin, University Department of Psychiatry, Warnford Hospital, Oxford OX3 7JX, UK.


Objective:  To review the literature on the use of lithium in the treatment of bipolar disorder and highlight the evidence base supporting its efficacy and safety.

Method:  A selective literature review.

Results:  Lithium is widely believed to be effective against acute mania, acute bipolar depression and in relapse prevention to either mania or depression. In fact, the data supporting efficacy in acute treatment are less impressive than is often claimed, whereas for relapse prevention and suicide prevention no other agent has comparable depth of support. Lithium is best described as the bench mark treatment for bipolar disorder, rather than the gold standard, because only a minority of patients show major clinical benefit. There is a developing need for further trials against new alternatives and in combination studies.

Conclusion:  Lithium has a continuing important role in the clinical management of bipolar disorder. Its under-utilization in North America reflects opinion rather than evidence and the demonstrated anti-suicide effects should help to reignite interest in its use.