Lithium's efficacy in reducing both symptom severity in bipolar disorder (BD) and suicide risk across clinical populations may reflect its ability to reduce impulsivity. Changes in immune markers are associated with BD and suicidality yet their exact role in symptom expression remains unknown. Evidence also suggests that lithium may decrease levels of proinflammatory cytokines in the periphery and central nervous system, and that such changes are related to its therapeutic efficacy. However, issues of cause and effect are hard to infer from clinical data alone. Here, we investigated the effects of chronic dietary lithium treatment on rats' performance of the 5-Choice Serial Reaction Time Task (5CSRTT), a well-validated operant behavioural task measuring aspects of impulsivity, attention and motivation. Male Long-Evans rats received a diet supplemented with 0.3% LiCl (n=13), or the equivalent control diet (n=16), during behavioural testing. Blood and brain tissue samples were assayed for a wide range of cytokines once any changes in impulsivity became significant. After 12 weeks, chronic lithium treatment reduced levels of motor impulsivity, as indexed by premature responses in the 5CSRTT; measures of sustained attention and motivation were unaffected. Plasma levels of IL-1β, IL-10 and RANTES (CCL-5) were reduced in lithium-treated rats at this time point. IL-1β, IL-6 and RANTES were also reduced selectively within the orbitofrontal cortex of lithium-treated rats, whereas cytokine levels in the medial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens were comparable with control subjects. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that lithium may improve impulse control deficits in clinical populations by minimising the effects of proinflammatory signalling on neuronal activity, particularly within the orbitofrontal cortex.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)339-349
Number of pages11
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
Early online date17 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020


  • Five-choice serial reaction time task
  • IL-1β
  • IL-6
  • Impulsivity
  • Lithium
  • Neuroinflammation
  • Orbitofrontal cortex
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Striatum


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