Researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, followed 41 people over the age of 60 who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
People with MCI experience problems with memory, language and other mental functions, although not to an extent that interferes with everyday life. Roughly half those affected will go on to develop dementia within five years of being diagnosed.
Over the course of a year, half of the study participants took a low dose of lithium every day, while the other half took a placebo.
Although all the participants showed a decline in memory function over the year, those taking lithium showed less of a decline than those taking the placebo. Those taking lithium also had less of a form of the tau protein, pTau – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease – in their cerebrospinal fluid.
The findings are published today in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The researchers now want to see larger studies to investigate whether lithium could have potential as a preventative treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Although these are encouraging results, this was a small study, and it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions from these findings. We need to see much larger, long-term studies carried out before we can know whether lithium could help prevent Alzheimer’s.
“There are currently 820,000 people affected by dementia, yet research is desperately underfunded. We must invest in more research if we are to find an effective treatment that is so urgently needed.”