NOVATO -- Preclinical research on the possibility of treating Parkinson's disease with lithium is under way at the Buck Institute for Age Research, which is working toward beginning a second phase of clinical studies on humans treated with the drug in conjunction with standard therapy.

Lithium "profoundly" prevents the cell loss and aggregation of toxic proteins associated with Parkinson's in a mouse model of the condition, according to the Buck. The new research appears in today's online edition of the Journal of Neuroscience Research.

The preclinical research is focused on determining the correct dosage for lithium, considered the  "gold standard" in treating bipolar disorder, according to the Buck.

“This is the first time lithium has been tested in an animal model of Parkinson's,” said lead author and Buck Professor Julie Andersen, Ph.D. “The fact that lithium’s safety profile in humans is well understood greatly reduces trial risk and lowers a significant hurdle to getting it into the clinic.”

Lithium has recently been suggested to be neuroprotective in relation to several neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and has been touted for its anti-aging properties in simple animals, according to Ms. Andersen.

“We fed our mice levels of lithium that were at the low end of the therapeutic range,” Ms. Andersen said. “The possibility that lithium could be effective in Parkinson's patients at subclinical levels is exciting, because it would avoid many side effects associated at the higher dose range.”

Overuse of lithium has been linked to hyperthyroidism and kidney toxicity.

Parkinson's Disease is a progressive, incurable neurodegenerative disorder that affects 1 million Americans and results in tremor, slowness of movement and rigidity. It is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. Between 50,000 and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Age is the largest risk factor for the PD. Onset usually begins between the ages of 45 and 70 years.

Dr. Andersen’s research focuses on lithium as a potential treatment for Parkinson's, as well as its efficacy in combination with drugs currently used to control the symptoms of the disease.  An internet search reveals stories from Parkinson's patients who are using lithium “off label” as part of their treatment regime; others report benefits from low dose lithium salts, which are available as a supplement in some health food stores.

“This finding gives us an opportunity to explore lithium as a recognized therapeutic for PD, in doses that are safe and effective” said Andersen.

Other Buck Institute researchers involved in the study include Yong-Hwan Kim, Anand Rane and Stephanie Lussier.  The research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.