The use of Lithium as a treatment of Bipolar Disorder was first discovered by Dr. John Cade.
Lithium salts have long been used as a first-line treatment for bipolar disorder. The therapeutic effect of lithium salts appears to be entirely due to the lithium ion, Li+. Approved for the treatment of acute mania in 1970 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), lithium has been an effective mood-stabilizing medication for many people with bipolar disorder. Lithium is also noted for reducing the risk of suicide in major affective disorders, such as bipolar disorder: suicide risk on the whole drops to below the average level for society (Baldessarini, 2003).
The mechanism of lithium salt treatment is believed to work as follows: some symptoms of bipolar disorder appear to be caused by the enzyme inositol monophosphatase (IMPase), an enzyme that splits inositol monophosphate into free inositol and phosphate. It is involved in signal transduction and is believed to create an imbalance in neurotransmitters in bipolar patients. The lithium ion is believed to produce a mood stabilizing effect by inhibiting IMPase by substituting for one of two magnesium ions in IMPase's active site, slowing down this enzyme.
Anticonvulsant mood stabilizers
Anticonvulsant medications, particularly valproate and carbamazepine, have been used as alternatives to lithium in many cases. Valproate was FDA approved for the treatment of acute mania in 1995. Newer anticonvulsant medications, including lamotrigine, gabapentin, and topiramate, are being studied to determine their efficacy as mood stabilizers in bipolar disorder. Some research suggests that different combinations of lithium and anticonvulsants may be helpful.
According to studies conducted in Finland in patients with epilepsy, valproate may increase testosterone levels in teenage girls and produce polycystic ovary syndrome in women who began taking the medication before age 20. Increased testosterone can lead to polycystic ovary syndrome with irregular or absent menses, obesity, and abnormal growth of hair. Therefore, young female patients taking valproate should be monitored carefully by a physician.
During a depressive episode, people with bipolar disorder commonly require additional treatment with antidepressant medication. Typically, lithium or anticonvulsant mood stabilizers are prescribed along with an antidepressant to protect against a switch into mania or rapid cycling. The comparative efficacy of various antidepressants in bipolar disorder is currently being studied.
Atypical antipsychotic drugs
In some cases, the newer atypical antipsychotic drugs such as clozapine or olanzapine may help relieve severe or refractory symptoms of bipolar disorder and prevent recurrences of mania. More research is needed to establish the safety and efficacy of atypical antipsychotics as long-term treatments for this disorder.
Certain types of psychotherapy or psychosocial interventions, in combination with medication, often can provide additional benefit. These include cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal and social rhythm therapy, family systems therapy, and psychoeducation.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was an accepted treatment in the past, and is still used today when other treatments have failed. There is current research work on transcranial magnetic stimulation as an alternative to ECT.