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Lithium for acute mania

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

Rebecca F. McKnight, Saïk J.G.N. de La Motte de Broöns de Vauvert, Edward Chesney, Ben H. Amit, John Geddes, Andrea Cipriani

Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD004048
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Issue number6
Early online date1 Jun 2019
E-pub ahead of print1 Jun 2019
Published1 Jun 2019

King's Authors



Bipolar disorder is a common condition associated with high morbidity; developing efficacious, safe treatments is therefore essential. Lithium is an effective maintenance treatment for bipolar disorder. It acts as mood stabiliser and reduces the risk of suicide. However, evidence assessing the efficacy of lithium in the treatment of acute mania is less robust. Current evidence-based guidelines cite multiple anti-dopaminergic and mood-stabilising agents as initial treatments: more definite evidence is needed to decide if lithium should be the first-line therapy.


1. To assess the effects of lithium in comparison with placebo or other active treatment in alleviating the acute symptoms of a manic or mixed episode in people with bipolar disorder. 2. To review the acceptability and tolerability of treatment with lithium in comparison with placebo or other active treatments in alleviating the acute symptoms of a manic or mixed episode in people with bipolar disorder.

Search methods

We searched the Cochrane Common Mental Disorders Controlled Trials Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, and PsycINFO. We also searched the World Health Organization trials portal (ICTRP) and We checked the reference lists of all included studies and relevant systematic reviews. We have incorporated studies from searches to 18 May 2018 into the current analyses.

Selection criteria

Prospective randomised controlled studies comparing lithium with placebo or alternative drug treatment in treatment of acute mania. We included anyone with bipolar disorder, male and female, of any age.

Data collection and analysis

At least two review authors independently extracted data and assessed methodological quality. We used odds ratios (ORs) to analyse binary efficacy outcomes, and mean differences (MDs) or standardised mean differences (SMDs) for continuously distributed outcomes. We used a fixed-effect model unless heterogeneity was moderate or substantial, in which case we used a random-effects model. We used Review Manager 5 to analyse data. We assessed the certainty of evidence for individual outcomes using the GRADE approach.

Main results

We found 36 randomised controlled studies comparing lithium with placebo, one of 12 drugs, or electroconvulsive therapy for treatment of acute mania. Studies included male and female participants (n = 4220), of all ages, who all fitted criteria for a manic episode within the context of a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Risk of bias was variable; 12 studies had a high risk of bias in one domain and 27 gave inadequate information on randomisation leading to an ’unclear’ rating for selection bias.

Lithium versus placebo

High-certainty evidence found that lithium was an effective treatment for acute mania and was more effective than placebo at inducing a response (OR 2.13, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.73 to 2.63; participants = 1707; studies = 6; I2 = 16%; high-certainty evidence), or remission (OR 2.16, 95% CI 1.73 to 2.69; participants = 1597; studies = 5; I2 = 21%; high-certainty evidence). Lithium was more likely than placebo to cause tremor (OR 3.25, 95% CI 2.10 to 5.04; participants = 1241; studies = 6; I2 = 0%; high-certainty evidence), and somnolence (OR 2.28, 95% CI 1.46 to 3.58; participants = 1351; studies = 7; I2 = 0%; high-certainty evidence). There was insufficient evidence to determine the effect of lithium for all-cause dropouts (OR 0.76; 95% CI 0.46 to 1.25; participants = 1353; studies = 7; I2 = 75%; moderate-certainty evidence), and weight gain (OR 1.48, 95% CI 0.56 to 3.92; participants = 735, studies = 3; I2 = 51%; moderate-certainty evidence).

Lithium versus antipsychotics or mood stabilisers

For the outcome of inducing a response, there was only very low-certainty evidence regarding lithium compared to haloperidol (MD −2.40, 95% CI −6.31 to 1.50; participants = 80; studies = 3; I2 = 95%), quetiapine (OR 0.66, 95% CI 0.28 to 1.55; participants = 335; studies = 2; I2 = 71%), and carbamazepine (SMD 0.21, 95% CI −0.18 to 0.60; participants = 102; studies = 3; I2 = 0%). Lithium was probably less likely to induce a response than olanzapine (OR 0.44, 95% CI 0.20 to 0.94; participants = 180; studies = 2; I2 = 0%; moderate-certainty evidence). Lithium may be less likely to induce a response than risperidone (MD 7.28, 95% CI 5.22 to 9.34; participants = 241; studies = 3; I2 = 49%; low-certainty evidence). There was no evidence of a difference between lithium and valproate (OR 1.22, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.70; participants = 607; studies = 5; I2 = 22%; moderate-certainty evidence). There was moderate-certainty evidence that lithium was more effective than topiramate at treating acute mania (OR 2.28, 95% CI 1.63 to 3.20; participants = 660; studies = 1). Data on adverse events for these comparisons contained too few studies to provide high-certainty evidence. 

Authors’ conclusions

This systematic review indicates that lithium is more effective than placebo as a treatment for acute mania but increases the risk for somnolence and tremor. Limited evidence suggests little or no difference between lithium and other mood stabilisers (valproate, carbamazepine) or antipsychotics (risperidone, quetiapine, haloperidol). Olanzapine may be an exception, as it is probably slightly more effective than lithium. There is uncertain evidence that risperidone may also be more effective than lithium. Lithium is probably more effective at treating acute mania than topiramate. When compared to placebo, lithium was more likely to cause adverse events. However, when compared to other drugs, too few studies provided data on adverse effects to provide high-certainty evidence. More, rigorously designed, large-scale studies are needed to definitively conclude if lithium is superior to other interventions in treating acute mania.

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