Aging’s a pain, primarily because it results in death. Extending the lifespan of humanity has, fortunately, been one of the primary goals of medical science ever since its inception. To this end, a new study, published in the journal Cell Reports, reveals that lithium may in fact allow humans to prolong their stay on planet Earth slightly longer than normal.
Lithium, for the most part, is used in batteries. It’s also used to treat and prevent episodes of mania in people afflicted with manic depression, but in high doses it can cause serious side effects like vomiting and diarrhea.
It might, therefore, come across as somewhat peculiar that this element has been found to possess life-extending powers previously unknown to science. Nevertheless, this is precisely the nature of the discovery made by a team of researchers from University College London (UCL)’s Institute of Healthy Ageing.
For this particular study, the team investigated the effects of lithium on the lives of fruit flies. Although humans and fruit flies aren’t the closest of evolutionary cousins, they do happen to share around 75 percent of the genes that cause disease with humans. They are also “model organisms” – easy to breed and easy to experiment with. This means that scientists can use them to investigate how humans get ill, age, and die, relatively effortlessly.
In this case, the addition of lithium into a fruit fly’s diet appeared to block a chemical named GSK-3, which consequently activated another called NRF-2, both of which are found in humans. The latter is known to protect against cellular damage and degeneration, so the researchers thought that if it’s activated, it will begin to slow down the aging process of cells by making them more resistant to harm.
An adult D. melanogaster, a type of fruit fly. Aka/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 2.5
This is precisely what happened: Fruit flies on small doses of lithium lived 16 percent longer, on average, than their control group counterparts. At high doses, however, they had reduced lifespans.
“We found low doses not only prolong life but also shield the body from stress and block fat production for flies on a high sugar diet,” co-author Dr. Ivana Bjedov of the UCL Cancer Institute said in a statement. Low doses even protected the flies against several pesticides.
Although it cannot be currently confirmed that the same effect takes hold in humans, the genetic similarity of fruit flies and Homo sapiens does imply that it might. Even if it does, however, there’s no guarantee that humans taking small doses of lithium will increase their lifespan by 16 percent. Importantly, lithium should only be taken if prescribed by a medical professional, so it’s highly inadvisable to interpret this finding as an invitation to self-medicate.
“The response we’ve seen in flies to low doses of lithium is very encouraging,” Professor Dame Linda Partridge, director of the UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing and lead author of the study, concluded. “Our next step is to look at targeting GSK-3 in more complex animals with the aim of eventually developing a drug regime to test in humans.”