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J Neurochem. 2003 Oct;87(2):417-26.

Opposed effects of lithium on the MEK-ERK pathway in neural cells: inhibition in astrocytes and stimulation in neurons by GSK3 independent mechanisms.

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Institut de Neurosciènces and Departament de Bioquímica i Biologia Molecular, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra, Spain.


Lithium is widely used in the treatment of bipolar disorder, but despite its proven therapeutic efficacy, the molecular mechanisms of action are not fully understood. The present study was undertaken to explore lithium effects of the MEK/ERK cascade of protein kinases in astrocytes and neurons. In asynchronously proliferating rat cortical astrocytes, lithium decreased time- and dose-dependently the phosphorylation of MEK and ERK, with 1 mM concentrations achieving 60 and 50% inhibition of ERK and MEK, respectively, after a 7-day exposure. Lithium also inhibited [3H]thymidine incorporation into DNA and induced a G2/M cell cycle arrest. In serum-deprived, quiescent astrocytes, pre-exposure to lithium resulted in the inhibition of cell cycle re-entry as stimulated by the mitogen endothelin-1: under this experimental setting, lithium did not affect the rapid, peak phosphorylation of MEK taking place after 3-5 min, but was effective in inhibiting the long-term, sustained phosphorylation of MEK. Lithium inhibition of the astrocyte MEK/ERK pathway was independent of inositol depletion. Further, compound SB216763 inhibited Tau phosphorylation at Ser396 and stabilized cytosolic beta-catenin, consistent with the inhibition of glycogen synthase kinase-3 beta (GSK-3 beta), but failed to reproduce lithium effects on MEK and ERK phosphorylation and cell cycle arrest. In cerebellar granule neurons, millimolar concentrations of lithium enhanced MEK and ERK phosphorylation in a concentration-dependent manner, again through an inositol and GSK-3 beta independent mechanism. These opposing effects in astrocytes and neurons make lithium treatment a promising strategy to favour neural repair and reduce reactive gliosis after traumatic injury.

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