The American Medical Association reported today that researchers in Genoa, Italy have discovered that Lithium may be helpful in reducing cognitive deficits in patients with Down Syndrome.   Lithium is a staple in the treatment of patients with serious psychiatric illness such as bipolar disorder.  Down Syndrome, also known as Trisomy 21, occurs when there is an extra chromosome #21.  The condition has existed for millions of years and was present in primates long before being documented in man.  While it is often characterized as an “ancient condition,” there have been few gains in medical science aimed at preventing the condition or effectively treating it, other than management of  the medical complications which can co-exist or develop in conjunction with the disorder.

Researchers treated mice with Lithium at doses commensurate with the therapeutic range in humans and observed their cognitive behaviors .  After administration of Lithium,  the mice had improved performance in several areas, including contextual learning, spatial memory and object discrimination.    It is believed that Lithium helps restore neurogenesis in the hippocampus area of the brain, and scientists have long recognized that adult hippocampal neurogenesis is impaired in Down Syndrome.    While these findings fall short of recommending that Lithium be regularly used to improve cognitive function in Down Syndrome patients, the findings certainly present important implications for future research that may well lead to treatment with Lithium and other medications.   These findings are timely, as the prevalence of Down Syndrome is increasing, and patients with Down Syndrome are living longer now than in the past.

Virginia Buchanan is a shareholder at Levin, Papantonio.  She has served on the Board of Directions of the Florida Bar Foundation and has been Treasurer of ABOTA, Chairperson of the Civil Process Server Grievance Committee and has been a member of the Chief Judge’s Council on Children. She currently is a member of the Women’s Caucus of the Florida Justice Association.