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Low doses of lithium extend fruit fly lifespan in study

The mood stabilizing drug helped scientists identify molecular targets that may slow the aging of cells.

By Stephen Feller
Low doses of lithium extended the lives of fruit flies by an average of 16 percent, helping scientists find two molecular targets that may help them slow aging, according to a new study. Photo by Roblan/Shutterstock
Low doses of lithium extended the lives of fruit flies by an average of 16 percent, helping scientists find two molecular targets that may help them slow aging, according to a new study. Photo by Roblan/Shutterstock

LONDON, April 7 (UPI) -- University College London scientists say the drug lithium, most commonly used for bipolar disorder and depression, extended the lives of fruit flies and suggests new targets to extend the lives of cells as a result.

Fruit flies given the mood stabilizing drug lived an average of 16 percent longer than flies not given the drug, potentially identifying a molecule that can be used to slow the aging of cells, the scientists report in a new study published in the journal Cell.

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The study showed flies lived longer after receiving low doses of lithium, regardless of their genetic makeup, helping scientists learn the drug blocks glycogen synthase kinase-3, or GSK-3, while activating another molecule called NRF-2 that defends cells against damage.

"We studied the responses of thousands of flies in different conditions to monitor the effects of lithium and how it extends life," Dr. Ivana Bjedov, a researcher at the UCL Cancer Institute, said in a press release. "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. Low doses also protect against the harmful effects of higher, toxic doses of lithium and other substances such as the pesticide paraquat."

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For the study, scientists gave 160 adult flies lithium chloride in early adulthood, as well as later in life, finding it extended their lifespan regardless of when they received it. While higher doses killed the flies, lower doses prolonged their lives by an average of 16 percent, and by as much as 18 percent, compared to a group given salt.

In addition to those treated with lithium early in life, flies who got the drug toward the end of their lives or were taken off the treatment and switched to placebo saw extensions to their lifespan. Flies treated with lithium also felt fewer effects from stress and fat production was blocked in those on a high sugar diet.

"Our aim is to identify ways to intervene in aging, with the end goal of keeping us all healthier for longer and compressing the time at the end of life when we suffer from physical decline and diseases," said Dame Linda Partridge, a professor at UCL. "This can be done by diet, genetics or drugs, which is why we want to identify promising drug targets. The response we've seen in flies to low doses of lithium is very encouraging and 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."

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