Lithium lengthens the period of free-running circadian rhythms in a variety of species, but this effect has not been demonstrated unequivocally in primates. Because of the possible link between lithium's action on the circadian clock and its therapeutic action in human mood disorders, we tested the ability of lithium to lengthen circadian period in a diurnal primate with circadian properties similar to those of humans. Lithium carbonate was administered in food pellets to 8 adult male squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) for at least 27 consecutive days. Serum lithium levels on the last day of lithium administration ranged from 0.76 to 2.02 mEq/liter, comparable to the therapeutic range for treatment of bipolar disorder in humans (0.6-1.2 mEq/liter). Circadian periods of perch-hopping activity were longer during lithium treatment than during baseline in 7 of the 8 monkeys (changes of -0.08 to +1.41 hr, mean +0.55 hr, p = 0.01), and returned toward baseline values when lithium was discontinued. In most cases, the period change was evident within a few days after beginning full lithium dose, and was not accompanied by changes in level or pattern of activity, nor in amplitude of the circadian rhythm. Food consumption and body weight were reduced during lithium treatment, and rebounded on return to lithium-free diet. Period change was related to lithium dose (p less than 0.05), but did not correlate with food consumption, body weight, or baseline circadian period. These results, by establishing that lithium lengthens circadian period in primates, suggest that studying the cellular mechanisms of this circadian effect may be relevant to understanding lithium's therapeutic effect on mood in humans.