Australia, Lithium and the Eagle
Last week, two personal experiences here on Marco Island and a
local newspaper article provided the subject material for my
column on microbes, conches and vultures. Accordingly, I
shouldn''t have been surprised that the local newspaper, the
Marco Island Eagle, contained an article on lithium, stimulating
my topic for this week. Lithium has played an important role in
my professional life. For my thesis work at the University of
Pittsburgh, I needed a low-melting electrolyte and found a mix
containing lithium bromide that filled the bill. Then, in my first
year at Bell Labs, I almost got fired because of lithium. My first
project was to study the behavior of lithium in germanium,
predecessor to silicon. Well, I found pure lithium terribly
difficult to work with and gave up on the project. When the time
came for my merit rating, I was told that my performance was
disappointing and was put on probation. Fortunately, another
project I had initiated turned out quite nicely and, within a few
months, my probation was lifted so I could continue my eventual
36-year career at Bell. Fittingly, the last 17 years of that career
were spent primarily on lithium batteries. I had finally learned
how to handle lithium!
So, when I saw the headline in the Eagle "Manic Depression.
Expert says lithium caused 800 percent decrease in suicide rate,"
I was naturally quite curious. The expert was Dr. Frederick
Goodwin, Director of George Washington University''s
Psychopharmacology Research Center. Dr. Goodwin had
addressed a group in nearby Naples, Florida in January and
spoke about the changing attitudes of the media and the public
towards mental illness in the past 50 years. It was just 50 years
ago that "lithium" was first demonstrated to have beneficial
effects in reducing the mood swings and the highs and lows of
manic depression. The introduction of this "chemical" treatment
for a mental illness created the field of psychopharmacology.
Today, we have not only lithium, but a range of other
medications that alleviate the symptoms of access-1 mental
illnesses. [Access-1 mental illnesses include bipolar disorder,
schizophrenia, major depression, panic disorder and obsessive
compulsive disorder.] In a few minutes, I''ll be watching "60
Minutes" with Mike Wallace, one of many who have come
forward with their own experiences with depression and other
One might expect that the major revolution of "lithium"
treatment arose out of some major well-funded medical research
center. Not so. It came out of a small hospital in Australia. It
wasn''t the first time the Aussies have upset the medical world.
You may remember that some years ago, an unknown doctor in
Australia proposed that a microorganism, H. pylori, is
responsible for the majority of stomach ulcers worldwide. His
suggestion was ignored or rejected outright by the medical
community for years. Today, a regimen of antibiotics is the
standard of treatment to kill old H. pylori and cure many ulcers
Back to "lithium," it is actually a lithium compound, e.g., lithium
carbonate, that is used as a drug; hence, my use of quotes, which
I''ll now drop. Concerning the headline quoted above, Dr.
Goodwin cited the results of a suicide prevention study of 16,800
patients, some of whom were taking lithium, some not. The
astounding result was indeed that the suicide rate of the lithium
takers, was 8 times less than the rate for those not taking lithium.
Goodwin noted appropriately that such a major effect in other
areas such as AIDS or breast cancer would receive
overwhelming media attention. However, he cited the fact that
lithium is not patentable and hence is not promoted by the drug
companies as the reason for the lack of attention.
To illustrate the success of today''s preferred treatment of mental
illness in which medication is combined with behavioral and
personal therapy, Goodwin presented the following statistics.
When only one approach was used, the rehospitalization rate was
60% but with the combined drug and personal therapy only 11%
relapsed, often without needing hospitalization. He cited the
costs of hospitalization at $900 per day as opposed to $11 per
week for out-patient relapse. In general, Goodwin said that
access-1 illnesses can be successfully treated in 60-80% of the
cases, with schizophrenia having the lowest success rate and
depression the highest. He compared this with a 40-50% success
rate for angioplasty.
The Aussies have been active in fields other than medicine. For
example, researchers at the University of Western Australia
published an article in Science last July in which they described
the use of a SHRIMP to measure the amounts of uranium
isotopes and lead products of radioactive decay in a mineral
called xenotime found in sedimentary rocks. Since the rates of
decay are well-established, by knowing the relative amounts of
these elements you can figure out how old the rocks are. By the
way, a SHRIMP in this case is not edible but stands for a
Sensitive High-Resolution Ion Microprobe, a fancy analytical
instrument. The application of SHRIMP to the tiny xenotime
crystals found in sedimentary rocks gave an accuracy of 7
million years. Now, this may not sound very accurate to you or
me, but consider that geologists have been using methods which
can be uncertain by a billion years!
This new precision will allow rocks in the so-called Precambrian
Era (450 million to 4.6 billion years ago) to be dated much more
precisely. Until now, the most precise dating of the Precambrian
rocks could only be accomplished if fossils or volcanic ash were
present. The only problem is that there aren''t many fossils in
these rocks which cover the period when life in the form of
microorganisms (resulting in microfossils) was beginning and/or
developing. With the new Australian dating techniques, we can
expect a more extensive and accurate record of the evolution of
life on our planet.
Let''s hope our Australian friends continue their worthy
researches in whatever their fields of interest. Oh, perhaps I
should mention that this morning when I walked the beach, the
conch shells were washed up all along the beach. However, their
numbers were no longer concentrated by the hundreds or
thousands I mentioned last week. I haven''t checked the vultures
Allen F. Bortrum