Lithium Pharmacology & Drug Classification

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Have you ever heard of lithium? Depending on what context, it may mean different things for you. This lesson focuses on the medical aspects of lithium and its use for a well-known disorder.

What Is Lithium?

Lithium. It's a metal. It's a medication. It's even the name of a famous song. What is it in clinical practice, though? Well, in the context of medicine lithium is a medication that is used to treat bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a type of psychological disorder that is characterized by two important things:

  • Emotional highs (mania)
  • Emotional lows (depression)

Essentially, people with bipolar disorder have severe swings in mood. Lithium can help treat this. Let's learn more about this medication.

Lithium, a type of metal.

Lithium Classification

Lithium is classified therapeutically as an antimanic medication. Based on the last section that shouldn't be all that surprising to you. From the standpoint of its chemical drug class, it is classified as an alkali metal. Don't be too intimidated by that term. Other alkali metals you've surely heard of include sodium (one-half of table salt) and potassium (found in bananas). However, lithium isn't nearly as edible as salt nor bananas. If not used carefully, it can be a dangerous substance.

Lithium, in the medical field, is known by other names. Technically, the generic long form of this medication is lithium carbonate. It is also known by many different brand names, such as:

  • Carbolith
  • Duralith
  • Eskalith
  • Lithane
  • Lithizine
  • Lithobid
  • Lithonate

The 'lith'ium in all of those names shouldn't be too hard to spot.

Lithium carbonate can be seen here. Another variation of lithium used in medicine is called lithium citrate.
Lithium carbonate

Lithium Pharmacology

No one is quite sure how lithium works to exert its therapeutic effects. It is suspected lithium works, at least in part, by:

  • Degrading neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine; ones that are thought to play a role in bipolar disorder
  • Inhibiting the release of the aforementioned neurotransmitters
  • Decreasing the sensitivity of certain receptors to these neurotransmitters

Another way by which lithium may work is by acting as a sort of shield for brain cells during episodes of mania and depression. During the episodes, the brain experiences oxidative stress. This means it gets bombarded with dangerous (in the long-run) compounds that damage the structure and function of the brain. Lithium seems to dampen the effects of this oxidative stress.

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