August 04, 2007

Lithium: From Here To Eternity

Big Bang NucleosynthesisThe lightest metal on earth, Lithium, is an alkali metal. It is unique in many aspects. Like all alkali metals, it has a single electron in its outer shell and is highly reactive. It is one of the very few 'primordial elements', that were produced with in minutes after the Big Bang. It has given new life to the patients of manic depressive psychosis (MDP), while giving cosmologists a nightmare.

Australian psychiatrist, Cade has been credited with its pharmacotherapeutic application in MDP (bipolar illness), after he attributed its calming (tranquilizing) effect in his patients, to lithium. (Lithium salts were used for various purposes in the past). Since then, it is used to treat various illnesses including depression, cluster headaches, neutropenia and various other ailments apart from mania. The exact mechanism of its action is yet unknown, though many possible ways through which it may act, has been postulated. It has a narrow therapeutic index, meaning a slight excess of this drug could be fatal, necessitating its frequent blood level estimation in patients.

Cosmologists, on the other hand, were foxed about its discrepancy in its celestial distribution. They seem to find less of it, than they should, based on theoretical predictions. As has already been stated, it is one of the 'primordial elements' which was created in the dawn of creation of the universe. Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (BBN), as this process of synthesis of elements from subatomic particles called, is in practice a lot different from the nucleosynthesis that occurs in our bodies. (Apart from lithium; hydrogen, deuterium and helium were also produced. Almost all other elements we see, or even have in our bodies, were created in the stars.) Recently, Andreas Korn of Uppsala University in Sweden and colleagues have discovered that stars gobble up lithium, which diffuses from its surface into its interior, where it is burnt up. Their discovery also confirmed theoretical cosmologists' predictions about this, long time ago. It also strengthened the BBN. Thus it seems, not only humans, but also stars ingest lithium alike.
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