Lithium and serotonin function: implications for the serotonin hypothesis of depression

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 1990;100(1):3-12. doi: 10.1007/BF02245781.


Lithium enjoys wide clinical use in the treatment of affective disorders, but the mechanism of its action in these conditions is still controversial. Recent studies have shown that lithium can interact with other antidepressant drugs to enhance their efficacy, perhaps by specific effects on serotonin (5-HT) function. A large body of independent evidence suggests that 5-HT function is abnormal in depression. This review documents preclinical evidence of lithium's effects on 5-HT function at the levels of precursor uptake, synthesis, storage, catabolism, release, receptors, and receptor-effector interactions. The weight of this evidence suggests that lithium's primary actions on 5-HT may be presynaptic, with many secondary postsynaptic effects. Studies in humans, using very different methodological approaches, generally suggest that lithium has a net enhancing effect on 5-HT function. These actions of lithium may serve to correct as-yet unspecified abnormalities of 5-HT function involved in the pathogenesis of depression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Lithium / pharmacology*
  • Lithium / therapeutic use
  • Serotonin / physiology*


  • Serotonin
  • Lithium