Background and objective: Lithium, widely used in the prophylaxis of psychiatric patients with bipolar affective disorders, is well known to induce thyroid alterations. However, a possible metabolic linkage between blood thyroxine levels and its regulatory function on erythrocyte glutathione concentration has not yet been evaluated in lithium-treated patients. The aim of this study was to assess the antioxidative capacity of erythrocytes in lithium-induced hypothyroidism before and after thyroxine replacement.
Patients and methods: Thyroid ultrasound with clinical and laboratory evaluation of thyroid function and thyroid-stimulating hormone assay were performed prior to and at 6-month intervals during lithium prophylaxis in 76 patients with bipolar affective disorders. The daily lithium dosage was adjusted to 600–1200mg and the mean duration of treatment was 2.2 ± 0.4 years. Final assessment revealed that 12 patients had evidence of primary hypothyroidism, and these were assigned as the test group. Lithium prophylaxis was supplemented with thyroxine at a dosage of 100 mg/day within 6 months after thyroid dysfunction was diagnosed. Red blood cell superoxide dismutase activities and the glutathione contents were measured before and after thyroxine replacement. In order to assess the effect of long-term lithium administration on red blood cell glutathione and superoxide dismutase levels, 12 patients who had not developed hypothyroidism during the follow-up period were selected for the lithium-treated euthyroid group. Mann Whitney U-test and Wilcoxon rank sum W-test were used for comparison of data.
Results: A comparison of the lithium-treated test group with healthy volunteers and their own values after thyroxine replacement revealed a significant decrease in red blood cell glutathione concentrations (p = 0.000) in the hypothyroid state. However, no clinically significant changes were observed in red blood cell superoxide dismutase activities of the test group. A statistical survey also demonstrated that there was no significant difference in the thyroid-stimulating hormone values as well as the red blood cell glutathione contents or superoxide dismutase activities between healthy controls and lithium-treated euthyroid subjects.
Conclusions: It is most likely that lithium primarily inhibited hormone production in the thyroid and that this led to a compensatory increase in thyroid-stimulating hormone secretion with a significant decrease in the red blood cell glutathione content. While the red blood cell glutathione content of hypothyroid patients was reduced to 40% of the post-thyroxine level, unchanged superoxide dismutase activity might render the erythrocytes vulnerable to oxidative stress and ultimately haemolysis. Thyroxine replacement during lithium prophylaxis of psychiatric patients is advisable in order to prevent subclinical hypothyroidism and related defects of erythrocyte antioxidant capacity.