There is growing evidence that lithium could be re-purposed as an anti-aging drug, and a new study from King’s College London suggests that lithium’s protective effects are due to a slowing down of the molecular aging process in cells.
The research, published today in Neuropsychopharmacology, also finds some individuals may benefit from lithium’s anti-aging properties more than others, depending on their genetics.
Lithium is a metal found naturally at low levels in our water supply. Higher lithium levels in water have been linked to longer life expectancy and a reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Lithium is also a psychiatric drug which has been used to treat bipolar disorder for almost 50 years.
To investigate lithium’s potential as an anti-aging drug the researchers looked at 384 people taking the drug as a treatment for bipolar disorder. They found the length of time taking lithium was strongly associated with the length of telomeres – molecular markers of cell age.
Telomeres are essentially ‘DNA tails’ at the end of chromosomes that shorten each time cells divide. As we get older, shorter telomere length means cells are less able to divide and replace damaged cells, leading to an increased risk for age-related diseases such as coronary artery disease.
Lead researcher Dr Timothy Powell, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, said: ‘Our results provide strong support that lithium could slow down the rate that telomeres shorten, or even restore telomeres over time.
‘We know stressful life events and childhood maltreatment can shorten telomeres prematurely, increasing the risk for age-related disease. If lithium’s anti-aging effects are due to restoration of telomeres, lithium supplementation may offer a strategy to prevent premature cell aging amongst individuals most at risk.’
The researchers also used genetic data from nearly 40,000 people to produce a ‘polygenic score’ for predicting an individual’s telomere length. For any single individual, their polygenic score was calculated by summing thousands of genetic variants known to be related to telomere length across the genome.
By comparing the polygenic scores among people taking lithium long-term for bipolar disorder, the researchers found that those people predicted to have longer telomeres as an adult benefited most from lithium’s anti-aging properties.
Dr Powell says: ‘Some people seem to possess a greater capacity to lengthen telomeres in response to lithium, depending on their genetics. In future it might be possible to use a genetic test to determine who would benefit most from taking lithium for anti-aging purposes.’
The research was carried out by looking at people on very high doses of lithium with a specific mental illness, so more work is needed to assess if lower levels of lithium would have an effect across the general population in long term studies.
Dr Powell says: ‘High doses of lithium can be toxic so people should certainly not start self-medicating. Clinical trials are needed to test how effective low dose lithium supplementation is at elongating telomeres and reducing risk for age-related disease.’
‘The polygenic nature of telomere length and the anti-ageing properties of lithium’ Coutts et al, Neuropsychopharmacology, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-018-0289-0
King’s College London