Lithium specificity in bipolar illness: a classic agent for the classic disorder

Bipolar Disord. 2009 Jun;11 Suppl 2:34-44. doi: 10.1111/j.1399-5618.2009.00709.x.


For over half a century, lithium has been the gold standard amongst the pharmacological armamentarium used to treat bipolar disorder. Its ascendancy in this regard has been attributed partly to its primacy of discovery and clinical implementation; however, it is important to consider how it has achieved success and retained its prominence and whether this is because of its unique profile and specificity of actions. In this paper, we briefly discuss the clinical evidence in support of lithium specificity and argue for its continuing use in those patients most likely to benefit, namely, patients with 'classic' bipolar disorder. Further, we suggest that accurate characterization of 'lithium responders' through focused research is likely to yield novel treatments and assist in better understanding of the pathophysiology of the illness. In addition, the unique antisuicidal actions of lithium warrant further examination, as do its impressive properties as a prophylactic agent. This is particularly so given the high morbidity associated with bipolar disorder and its potential for suicide. Hence, in this paper, after describing the changing diagnostic backdrop against which much of the research to date has been conducted, we discuss the clinical therapeutic profile of lithium in both the acute and long-term management of bipolar disorder and its phenotypic specificity of action. We demonstrate that lithium possesses significant clinical and therapeutic efficacy that is very individual and thus remains the treatment of choice for bipolar disorder when used specifically in select patients.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antimanic Agents / history
  • Antimanic Agents / pharmacology
  • Antimanic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bipolar Disorder / diagnosis
  • Bipolar Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Bipolar Disorder / prevention & control
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Lithium Compounds / history
  • Lithium Compounds / pharmacology
  • Lithium Compounds / therapeutic use*


  • Antimanic Agents
  • Lithium Compounds