Greater Cortical Gray Matter Density in
Lithium-Treated Patients with Bipolar Disorder
Carrie E. Bearden, Paul M. Thompson, Manish Dalwani, Kiralee M. Hayashi, Agatha D. Lee,
Mark Nicoletti, Michael Trakhtenbroit, David C. Glahn, Paolo Brambilla, Roberto B. Sassi,
Alan G. Mallinger, Ellen Frank, David J. Kupfer, and Jair C. Soares
inconsistent; however, new methods for three-dimensional (3-D) computational image analysis may better characterize neuroanatomic
changes than standard volumetric measures.
28 adults with bipolar disorder, 70% of whom were lithium-treated (mean age ? 36.1 ? 10.5; 13 female subject), and 28 healthy control
local proportions of gray matter at thousands of homologous cortical locations.
Results: Gray matter density was significantly greater in bipolar patients relative to control subjects in diffuse cortical regions. Greatest
differences were found in bilateral cingulate and paralimbic cortices, brain regions critical for attentional, motivational, and emotional
modulation. Secondary region of interest (ROI) analyses indicated significantly greater GMD in the right anterior cingulate among lithium-
treated bipolar patients (n ? 20) relative to those not taking lithium (n ? 8).
Key Words: Bipolar disorder, cortical pattern matching, lithium,
magnetic resonance imaging, mood disorders, neuroprotection
tions in regional brain volumes, accompanied by reductions in
neuronal and glial density, particularly in the ventral frontal
cortex (Drevets 2000; Rajkowska 2000) and anterior cingulate
(Lochhead et al. 2004; Lyoo et al. 2004). However, previous
findings have been inconsistent, with both volumetric increases
and decreases reported (see Brambilla et al. 2005 for a review).
As such, it is not yet known whether these changes reflect
neurodevelopmental anomalies, part of the disease progression,
or functional sequelae of biochemical changes that accompany
repeated illness episodes.
A recent meta-analysis of regional morphometry in bipolar
disorder found no significant differences in total brain volume or
onventional volumetric magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
studies and postmortem brain studies suggest that at least a
proportion of patients with bipolar disorder have reduc-
whole brain gray or white matter between bipolar and compar-
ison subjects or in the volume of individual cortical, subcortical,
or limbic structures (McDonald et al. 2004). However, the
authors noted significant heterogeneity across studies for several
brain structures, including the amygdala, left subgenual prefron-
tal cortex, and thalamus. Psychotropic medication usage may be
a potentially important contributor to the observed heterogene-
In particular, lithium has been the reference standard medication
treatment for bipolar disorder for over 50 years (Brambilla et al.
2001). While lithium’s mechanism of therapeutic action is currently
unknown, recent human studies offer evidence that pharmacolog-
ically induced increases in cortical gray matter may occur with
chronic lithium use in patients with bipolar disorder. Notably,
Moore et al. (2000b) observed that lithium significantly increased
total gray matter volume in bipolar patients by 3%, on average, after
4 weeks. More recently, Sassi et al. (2002) found larger total gray
matter volume in lithium-treated bipolar patients, as compared with
both untreated patients and control subjects. In a partially overlap-
ping sample, decreased left anterior cingulate volumes were ob-
served in untreated bipolar patients, whereas lithium-treated pa-
tients were not significantly different from healthy control subjects
(Sassi et al. 2004). In addition, magnetic resonance spectroscopy
(MRS) has revealed increases in cortical N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), a
putative marker of neuronal integrity, in both bipolar patients and
normal control subjects following lithium administration (Moore et
al. 2000a; Silverstone et al. 2003).
While these studies suggest potential neuroprotective effects
of this agent, the few in vivo neuroimaging studies published to
date have used relatively crude or region-specific volumetric
measures. With advances in computational image analysis, dif-
ferences in cortical anatomy can be examined at high spatial
resolution. Here, we apply these algorithms to map gray matter
abnormalities over the entire cortical surface in bipolar patients
and to determine whether, if present, these changes are influ-
enced by lithium treatment.
Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior; and Laboratory of
NeuroImaging (PMT, KMH, ADL), Department of Neurology, University
of California, Los Angeles, California; Departments of Psychiatry (MD,
MN, MT, DCG, JCS) and Radiology (DCG, JCS), University of Texas Health
Science Center at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas; Department of Pa-
thology and Experimental & Clinical Medicine (PB), University of Udine,
Udine, Italy & Scientific Institute, IRCCS E Medea, Udine, Italy; Depart-
Paulo, Brazil; Department of Psychiatry (AGM, EF, DJK), University of
Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Audie L.
Murphy Division (JCS), South Texas Veterans Health Care System, San
Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, 300 Build-
ing Medical Plaza, Suite 2265, Los Angeles, CA 90095; E-mail:
BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2007;62:7–16
© 2007 Society of Biological Psychiatry
Methods and Materials
This study was approved by the University of Pittsburgh
Biomedical Institutional Review Board, and written informed
consent was obtained from all subjects prior to participation. The
sample included 28 patients with bipolar disorder and 28 healthy
comparison subjects matched for age, sex, handedness, and level
of education; a subset of this sample was previously reported on
in Sassi et al. (2004). Patients were recruited through the
outpatient facilities of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
or through advertisements in the local media. The inclusion
criteria were a DSM-IV diagnosis of bipolar disorder, subtype I or
II, as determined by the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV
(SCID-IV) (First et al. 1998), in any mood state, age between 18
and 65 years, and no lithium treatment for at least 1 month at the
time of the MRI scan (for the untreated group) or receiving
lithium for at least 2 weeks for the lithium-treated group. The
Bech-Rafaelsen Mania Scale (Bech et al. 1979) and the Hamilton
Depression Rating Scale (25-item version) (HDRS) (Hamilton
1960) were used to rate clinical symptoms and were adminis-
tered within 1 week of the scan. All subjects had normal physical
examination results and no history of neurologic problems.
Exclusion criteria were any comorbid psychiatric disorder, cur-
rent medical problems, and/or alcohol or substance abuse or
dependence within 6 months preceding the study (see Sassi et al.
2004 for further details).
Healthy comparison subjects were recruited through local
advertisements, according to the same exclusion criteria used for
patients. Healthy control subjects had no DSM-IV Axis I disor-
ders, as determined by the SCID-IV (First et al. 1998); no current
medical problems; and no history of psychiatric disorders among
first-degree relatives. The ethnic and racial makeup of the groups
did not differ from each other, and there were no differences in
level of education (Table 1).
Bipolar patients were outpatients at the time of assessment,
with treatment histories of varying lengths (mean age of onset of
20 ? 6.9 years). At the time of MRI scan, 36% of patients (n ? 10)
were in a depressed state, 61% (n ? 17) were euthymic, and 3%
(n ? 1) was hypomanic. Six patients (21%) had bipolar II
disorder, whereas 22 (79%) had bipolar I disorder. Bipolar I
disorder patients did not differ from bipolar II disorder patients in
terms of length of illness [F(1,26) ? 2.84, p ? .11], age at onset
[F(1,26) ? .47, p ? .50], depression or mania severity scores
[HDRS: F(1,26) ? 2.56, p ? .12; Bech-Rafaelsen Mania Scale:
F(1,26) ? .43, p ? .52], or mood state at scan time [?2(2) ? .019,
p ? .89]. All analyses were run with and without the six bipolar
II disorder subjects. Although p values changed slightly, this did
not affect whether each result was statistically significant, so we
present results for the full sample.
The majority (n ? 20, 71%) were taking lithium at the time of
evaluation (Table 1) for a mean duration of 128 weeks (?230
weeks; range 3–1000 weeks), at a mean dosage of 1158.8 mg/day
(?362.1; range 675–2100 mg/day). In addition to lithium, two
patients were also taking tranylcypromine (10 to 20 mg), one was
taking levothyroxine, and one was taking citalopram (60 mg) plus
levothyroxine. The other patients in the lithium-treated group were
all on lithium monotherapy. Of the eight patients that were not
taking lithium, one was taking citalopram (20 mg), and the others
were on no medication. Further information regarding clinical and
medication history for each patient is provided in Supplement 1.
Signa Imaging System (GE Medical Systems, Waukesha, Wisconsin)
running Signa version 5.4.3 software. The scanning protocol was
identical to that used in Sassi et al. (2004). All magnetic resonance
procedures developed at the UCLA Laboratory of NeuroImaging
Table 1. Sample Demographics
Lithium-Positive Patients with
Bipolar Disorder (n ? 20)
Lithium-Negative Patients with
Bipolar Disorder (n ? 8)
Subjects (n ? 28)
Age (Mean ? SD)
% Female (n)
% Right Handed (n)
% Caucasian (n)
% Asian (n)
% African American (n)
% Biracial (n)
% Bipolar I Disorder
% Bipolar II Disorder
Bech-Rafaelsen Mania Scale
Duration of Illness (Years)
Age at Onset
Number of Episodes
Current Mood State
% with Previous (Lifetime)
Antipsychotic Use (n)
35.1 ? 10.8
15.0 ? 2.7
38.6 ? 10.0
15.5 ? 3.3
35.9 ? 8.5
15.4 ? 2.7
F ? .40, p ? .67
?2? .35, p ? .84
?2? .00, p ? 1.0
F ? .20, p ? .82
6.9 ? 8.6
.67 ? 1.7
15.1 ? 8.2
18.6 ? 6.1
20.5 ? 25.9
15.3 ? 11.8
1.63 ? 2.0
15.1 ? 8.3
23.5 ? 7.8
16.3 ? 17.5
?2? 4.1, p ? .25
?2? 5.43, p ? .04
F ? 3.76, p ? .07
F ? 1.31, p ? .27
F ? .00, p ? .99
F ? 3.03, p ? .094
F ? .16, p ? .70
?2? 4.13, p ? .13
25% (5) 12% (1)NA
?2? .89, p ? .64
Mean ? standard deviation, age, and education levels are expressed in years.
HDRS, Hamilton Depression Rating Scale.
8 BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2007;62:7–16
C.E. Bearden et al.
that are described in detail in other reports (Thompson et al. 2004)
and summarized below.
First, each image volume was resliced into a standard orien-
tation by trained image analysts (M.D., M.N., M.T.) who “tagged”
20 standardized anatomical landmarks in each subject’s image
dataset corresponding to the same 20 anatomical landmarks
defined on the ICBM-53 average brain (Thompson et al. 2003).
Next, brain image volumes were more carefully spatially regis-
tered to each other by defining 80 standardized, manually
defined anatomical landmarks on each brain (Sowell et al. 2001).
A least-squares, rigid-body transformation spatially matched
each individual to the average of all the control subjects. In this
manner, all individual brains were matched in space, but global
differences in brain size and shape remained intact. Automated
tissue classification used a partial volume correction method
(Shattuck et al. 2001) to classify voxels as most representative of
gray matter, white matter, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Nonbrain
tissue (i.e., scalp, orbits) was removed from the spatially trans-
formed, tissue-segmented images. Then, each individual cortical
surface was extracted and three-dimensionally rendered using
automated software (MacDonald et al. 2000). Each resulting
cortical surface was represented as a high-resolution mesh of
131,072 surface triangles spanning 65,536 surface points.
Cortical pattern matching methods (Thompson et al. 2003,
2004) were used to localize disease effects on cortical anatomy.
Image analysts (M.D., M.N., M.T.), blind to all subject informa-
tion, traced each of 30 sulci in each hemisphere on the surface
rendering of each subject’s brain (13 on the medial surface, 17 on
the lateral surface), employing previously validated anatomic
delineation protocols (Sowell et al. 2003; Thompson et al. 2003).
In addition to contouring the major sulci, six midline landmark
curves bordering the longitudinal fissure were outlined in each
hemisphere to establish hemispheric gyral limits. Spatially regis-
tered image volumes in coronal, axial, and sagittal planes were
available simultaneously to help disambiguate brain anatomy.
Landmarks were defined according to a detailed anatomical
protocol (Sowell et al. 2001) based on the Ono et al. (1990) sulcal
atlas. These criteria, along with methods for assessing interrater
reliability, have been described previously (Sowell et al. 2001)
and the written anatomical protocols are available via the Internet
interrater variability of manual outlining was measured as the
three-dimensional (3-D) root mean square difference in millime-
ters between 100 equidistant points from each sulcal landmark
traced in six test brains by each rater, relative to a gold standard
arrived at by a consensus of raters, as previously reported
(Sowell et al. 2003). Interrater reliability was determined by
comparing the three-dimensional root mean square distance
between equidistant surface points from sulcal landmarks from
one test brain traced six times by each rater (M.D., M.N., M.T.).
Three-dimensional root mean square disparities were ? 2 mm,
and on average ? 1 mm, between points for all landmarks within
and between raters. This equates to interrater reliability coeffi-
cient (intraclass correlation coefficient [ICC]) values ranging from
.95 to .975.
Cortical Gray Matter Maps
Points on the cortical surfaces were calculated using the
averaged sulcal contours as anchors to drive into correspon-
dence the 3-D cortical surface mesh models from each subject
(Thompson et al. 2003). Because deformation maps (acquired
during matching of the cortical surfaces) associate corresponding
anatomical features of the cortex across patients and control
subjects based on sulcal contours drawn in every individual, a
local measurement termed gray matter density (GMD) can be
calculated at every point over the surface of the brain for every
patient and control subject and averaged across corresponding
regions of cortex (Ashburner and Friston 2000; Thompson et al.
2003). Briefly, a sphere with a radius of 15 mm centered at every
cortical surface point was made and referenced to the same
spatial location in the gray matter maps for every participant
derived earlier in the tissue classification. The proportion of
segmented grey matter voxels relative to the total number of
voxels in this sphere is calculated at every point and stored as a
map of proportional gray matter—with possible values ranging
from .0 to 1.0—for every patient and control subject. The
proportion of gray matter in each sphere at every point in every
participant indicates, in part, local cortical thickness that varies
over different regions of the brain. Given the large anatomic
variability in some cortical regions, high-dimensional elastic
matching of cortical patterns (Thompson et al. 2004) was used to
associate GMD measures from homologous cortical regions
across subjects. One advantage of cortical matching is that it
localizes deficits relative to gyral landmarks; it also averages data
from corresponding gyri, which would be impossible if data
were only linearly mapped into stereotaxic space.
Mapping Gray Matter Differences
Statistical maps were generated indicating group differences
in local GMD. To do this, at each cortical point, a multiple
regression was run to assess whether the quantity of gray matter
at that point depended on group membership. The p-value
describing the significance of this linkage was plotted at each
cortical point using a color code to produce a statistical map
(e.g., Figure 2). Permutation methods (Bullmore et al. 1999;
Thompson et al. 2003) assessed the significance of the statis-
tical maps and corrected for multiple comparisons. In each
case, the covariate (group membership) was permuted
1,000,000 times on a Reality Monster supercomputer (Silicon
Graphics, Inc, Mountain View, California) with 32 internal
R10000 processors, and a null distribution was developed for
the area of the average cortex with group difference statistics
above a fixed threshold in the significance maps. An algorithm
was then used to determine the significance probability for the
overall difference patterns in each map (Thompson et al.
2003). In addition, based on our a priori hypotheses regarding
specific brain regions that might be affected in bipolar disor-
der patients, we conducted permutation tests in two specific
regions of interest (ROIs), the anterior cingulate gyrus and
frontal lobe, considering only effects within that ROI when
compiling a reference distribution from the randomized data.
The anterior cingulate ROI consisted of the entire anterior
cingulate gyrus and was defined with boundaries encompass-
ing the cingulate sulcus (anterior, superior, and inferior
boundaries); the paracentral sulcus (posterior boundary); and
the pericallosal sulcus (inferior and posterior boundaries),
while the frontal lobe ROI consisted of all portions of the
frontal cortex anterior to the genu of the corpus callosum.
These ROIs were traced by a single rater blind to diagnosis
(K.M.H.) who had established excellent reliability (?.98)
relative to a gold standard arrived at by a consensus of raters.
Anatomic criteria for these ROIs are defined in detail in
C.E. Bearden et al.
BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2007;62:7–16 9
previous publications (Ballmaier et al. 2004). The total supra-
threshold volume, within the ROI, is assessed in the permu-
tation test that corrects for multiple comparisons at all voxels
within the ROI. This procedure is similar to the small-volume
correction conducted in statistical parametric mapping (Ash-
burner and Friston 2000).
Overall Volumetric Differences
To provide context for the cortical gray matter maps, we first
analyzed overall differences in total gray and white matter
volume in patients with bipolar disorder, as compared with
control subjects. The bipolar group overall did not differ from
comparison subjects in total brain volume [F(1,54) ? .069, p ?
.79] or total white matter volume [F(1,54) ? .28, p ? .60] but had
significantly larger overall gray matter volume by 6.6% [F(1,54) ?
4.01, p ? .05]. Left and right hemisphere gray matter volumes
were significantly greater by 7.6% (p ? .05) and 6.5% (p ? .01),
respectively, but there were no differences in hemispheric white
matter volumes (left: 1% smaller, p ? .72, ns; right: 1.9% smaller,
p ? .60, ns).
Mapping Cortical Gray Matter Differences
In bipolar patients, highly significant gray matter enlargement
was observed in a broad anatomical region encompassing the
medial frontal and parietal cortices and portions of the temporal
and occipital cortex (left hemisphere: p ? .025, right hemisphere:
p ? .0075, corrected). On the lateral brain surface, GMD was
greater by 10% or more in bilateral superior and middle frontal
gyri, somatosensory cortex, and left ventrolateral prefrontal and
superior temporal cortices (Figure 1). These brain regions com-
prise heteromodal association cortices, in which information
from lower-level sensory systems is integrated into higher-order
percepts and functions (Sowell et al. 2003). Together, these
regions are thought to form a distributed system responsible for
attentional, motivational, and emotional modulation (Mesulam
As evident in Figure 2, differences were most striking on the
medial brain surface, with substantial gray matter enlargement in
bipolar patients in the retrosplenial and paracingulate cortices,
the subgenual cortex, and paralimbic belts, which form a ring of
cortex that encircles the corpus callosum (red colors, Figure 2D).
In the cingulate gyrus (bilaterally but left more extensive than
right), GMD was 10% to 15% above the control average (p ? .05).
No significant reductions in GMD in bipolar patients compared
with control subjects were observed in any cortical location.
Effects of Lithium Treatment
Given that most patients in this study were lithium treated
(n ? 20; 71%), we hypothesized that these gray matter differ-
ences may reflect medication effects. To investigate whether the
findings in the overall sample were primarily accounted for by
patients currently treated with lithium, we subdivided the sample
into bipolar patients who were being treated with lithium (Li?)
and those who were not being treated with lithium (Li?). The
resulting subject groups (healthy control subjects, Li?, and Li?)
did not differ with regard to age, gender, race, or educational
attainment (Table 1). Lithium-treated bipolar patients did not
differ from nonlithium-treated patients in terms of length of
illness, age at onset, number of previous episodes, mania severity
scores, or mood state at scan time. However, depression severity
scores were nonsignificantly higher in the untreated group (p ?
.07), and bipolar II disorder patients were overrepresented in the
Li? group (p ? .04; Table 1).
Figure 3 depicts volumetric differences for the three groups
(Li?, Li?, and control subjects). While there were no differences
in white matter volume between the groups [left hemisphere:
F(2,53) ? .107, p ? .90; right hemisphere: F(2,53) ? .266, p ?
.77), the gray matter differences observed in the bipolar group
overall were entirely attributable to patients treated with lithium.
Lithium-treated bipolar patients had significantly greater overall
gray matter volumes compared with normal control subjects [left:
9.06%, t(46) ? ?2.6; p ? .017; right: 8.68%, t(46) ? ?2.09; p ?
.042], although patients not on lithium did not differ from normal
control subjects [t(34) ? .873, p ? .44; t(34) ? .21, p ? .86, for
left and right hemisphere, respectively; Figure 3A]. Lobar gray
matter volumes were significantly greater in lithium-treated
Figure 1. Cortical GMD maps: gray matter differences on the lateral brain
subjects (n ? 28) (B) are shown on a color coded scale where red colors
denote areas of greater GMD at the cortex and blue colors relatively lower
GMD. While both groups show relatively higher GMD in temporal regions,
particularly perisylvian cortex, greater GMD in widespread areas of frontal
cortex appears specific to the bipolar group (A, B). In (C), the mean differ-
ence; red colors: greater increase). On the right lateral (left panel) and left
lateral (right panel) cortical surfaces, gray matter differences are seen pri-
marily in superior and middle frontal gyri (BA 4, 6, 8, and 9), the inferior
The significance of these differences is plotted in (D) as a map of p-values.
GMD, gray matter density; BA, Brodmann area.
10 BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2007;62:7–16
C.E. Bearden et al.
bipolar patients versus control subjects in frontal (by 9.8%, p ?
.04), temporal (by 6.6%, p ? .04), and parietal lobes (by 10.3%,
p ? .05), but this difference was not significant in the occipital
lobe (8.1% larger, p ? .14, ns; Figure 3B). Lobar white matter
volumes did not significantly differ between Li?, Li?, and
control subjects (Figure 3C). Concomitant with larger gray matter
volumes, lithium-treated bipolar patients had significantly
smaller cerebrospinal fluid volumes than both control subjects
[t ? 2.40(46), p ? .02] and patients not on lithium [t ? 1.82(26),
p ? .04], resulting in similar total cerebral volumes across groups.
In contrast, CSF values in bipolar patients not on lithium did not
differ from normal control subjects (t ? ?.61(34), p ? .55, ns).
Cortical surface maps were generated to characterize region-
ally specific differences in gray matter across groups. Maps of
GMD for Li? versus control subjects indicated a more robust
effect than that seen in the group of bipolar patients as a whole
(Figure 4A). After multiple-comparison correction, GMD was
significantly greater in Li? bipolar patients for both whole brain
(left: p ? .0082, right: p ? .0015) and in frontal and anterior
patients with bipolar disorder and healthy control subjects. Means and
standard error measures (error bars) are shown for the three groups (Li?,
but lithium-treated bipolar patients had significantly greater gray matter
volumes (9.1%, left; 8.7%, right), although patients not on lithium did not
differ from normal control subjects (A). In addition, lobar gray matter vol-
control subjects (B), whereas lobar white matter volumes did not signifi-
cantly differ between Li?, Li?, and control subjects (C). Li?, treated with
lithium; Li?, not treated with lithium.
Figure 2. Cortical GMD maps: gray matter differences on the medial brain
matter density between the bipolar group average (A) and the control
group average (B), according to the color bar. The significance of these
differences is plotted in (D) as a map of p-values. As can be seen in (A) and
(B), areas of relatively high cortical GMD are more widespread in the cingu-
late gyrus in bipolar patients as compared with control subjects. Group
differences were maximal in the cingulate gyrus (bilaterally, but left more
extensive than right), extending along the dorsomedial extent of the inter-
hemispheric fissure. In these regions, GMD was 10% to 15% above the
significant in a broad area encompassing posterior and anterior cingulate
cortex, extending posteriorly to extrastriate regions and anteriorly to ven-
tromedial PFC (C) (right panel). In the right medial wall (C) (left panel),
differences are more circumscribed to cingulate and occipital cortex. GMD,
gray matter density; GM, gray matter; PFC, prefrontal cortex.
C.E. Bearden et al.
BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2007;62:7–16 11
cingulate ROIs (Table 2). Gray matter differences were most
marked in the superior aspects of primary motor cortex bilater-
ally, with greater extent into dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the
left hemisphere. Areas of significantly greater gray matter con-
centration extended onto the medial surface of almost the entire
left hemisphere, while in the right hemisphere, the effects were
more circumscribed to the cingulate, sensorimotor, and occipi-
toparietal cortices. However, in nonlithium-treated patients,
GMD did not differ from normal control subjects for both the
whole brain (left: p ? .87, right: p ? .45, ns; Figure 4B) and in
frontal and anterior cingulate ROIs (Table 2). These maps are
consistent with the volumetric data, indicating the observed gray
matter differences in the bipolar group overall were accounted
for by higher GMD in patients treated with lithium.
Direct comparison between the lithium-treated versus un-
treated groups revealed nonsignificantly greater GMD in the Li?
versus Li? group overall (p ? .06, for both right and left
hemispheres; Supplement 2). After permutation analysis to cor-
rect for multiple comparisons, this GMD difference in the Li?
versus Li? group was significant in the right hemisphere ROI in
the anterior cingulate gyrus (p ? .02) but not in the left anterior
cingulate (p ? .06). Permutation analyses for the frontal lobe ROI
also indicated nonsignificantly greater GMD in the Li? versus
Li? group (p ? .06, for both right and left hemispheres).
After normalizing the duration of lithium treatment variable
using a log transformation, there was not a significant linear
correlation between duration of lithium use and GMD (left
hemisphere: p ? .51, ns; right hemisphere: p ? .78, ns, cor-
rected). However, given that a linear relationship would not be
anticipated, we further examined the relationship between du-
ration of lithium treatment and gray matter using curve estima-
tion to determine the model best fitting the relationship. A
significant quadratic relationship between weeks on lithium and
overall gray matter density was observed [R2? .38, F(17) ? 5.13;
p ? .018; Figure 5], indicating that duration of lithium treatment
accounts for 38% percent of the variance in gray matter volume
in lithium-treated bipolar patients. No significant relationships
were observed between GMD and lithium dosage or lithium
blood level within the lithium-treated group (all p ?.25).
and overall GMD was better accounted for by other disorder-related
variables, we also examined the relationship between gray matter
density and other illness variables simultaneously in a multiple
regression analysis (HDRS and Bech-Rafaelsen Mania Scale scores,
duration of illness, age at onset of illness, number of previous mood
episodes). Results indicated that when considered together in the
regression model, none of the individual predictors bore a signifi-
cant relationship to overall GMD [R2? .39, F(5,8) ? 1.02, p ? .47].
However, age was significantly inversely correlated with GMD in
both bipolar patients (for Li? bipolar patients: r ? ?.49; p ? .03;
for Li? bipolar patients: r ? ?.73; p ? .04) and control subjects
(r ? ?.54; p ? .003). Thus, to examine whether there was an
interactive effect of age with lithium treatment that might be
accounting for the observed relationship, we added age to the
model. This analysis indicated that after accounting for the effects
of age, weeks on lithium remained a significant predictor of
GMD [R2? .34; F(17) ? 4.39, p ? .03].
Figure 4. Cortical GMD increase as a function of lithium usage. Statistical
significance maps of GMD for bipolar patients treated with lithium versus
control subjects (A). The previously observed differences in GMD become
even more robust when the analysis is restricted to patients treated with
lithium only (n ? 20) versus control subjects (n ? 28). Widespread areas of
greater gray matter concentration are observed in diffuse cortical areas,
ally in visual association cortex (BA 18 and 19). However, GMD in bipolar
from control subjects in any cortical region (B). GMD, gray matter density;
BA, Brodmann area; Li?, not treated with lithium.
Table 2. Summary of Results of Permutation Tests: Significance Levels for Group Comparisons of Patients with Bipolar Disorder and Control Subjects
Permutation Results Summary
Measure Hemisphere Significance LevelsAnterior Cingulate ROIFrontal ROI
GMD CTL vs. BIP Li?
p ? .0082
p ? .0015
p ? .06
p ? .06
p ? .87, ns
p ? .45, ns
p ? .01
p ? .004
p ? .06
p ? .02
p ? .35, ns
p ? .65, ns
p ? .01
p ? .003
p ? .06
p ? .06
p ? .70, ns
p ? .42, ns
GMD BIP Li? vs. BIP Li?
GMD CTL vs. BIP Li?
Li?, n ? 20; Li?, n ? 8.
ROI, region of interest; GMD, gray matter density; CTL, control subject; BIP, bipolar disorder; Li?, treated with lithium; Li?, not treated with lithium.
12 BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2007;62:7–16
C.E. Bearden et al.
Effects of Other Medications
Because a small number of bipolar patients in this study were
taking other medications at the time of the scan (n ? 5; see
Supplement 1), we reanalyzed group differences in total GMD
after excluding these patients from the analysis and group
differences remained significant. One-way analysis of variance
(ANOVA) analyses comparing the three groups (using the least
significant difference correction for multiple comparisons) indi-
cated gray matter density was significantly greater in lithium-
treated bipolar patients (n ? 16), as compared with both control
[n ? 7; t(21) ? ?.27; p ? .03]. However, unmedicated patients and
control subjects did not differ from each other [t(33) ? ?.003; p ?
Effects of Current Mood State
Overall GMD values did not differ between depressed (n ? 10)
and euthymic (n ? 17) bipolar patients, whether controlling for
and euthymic bipolar patients for either the left [F(1,25) ? .38, p ?
.54, ns] or right anterior cingulate ROI [F(1,25) ? 1.6, p ? .21, ns].
These maps provide novel information regarding regionally
specific gray matter enlargement associated with lithium treat-
ment in bipolar patients. Cortical pattern matching methods
revealed significantly greater gray matter concentration, particu-
larly within the medial walls of the cerebral hemispheres, in the
anterior cingulate, ventral prefrontal cortex, and paralimbic
association cortex in lithium-treated patients with bipolar disor-
der, as compared with healthy control subjects. These brain
regions are part of a complex interconnected neural circuitry
involved in mood and cognitive regulation, memory, and the
pathophysiology of both unipolar and bipolar mood disorders
(Brambilla et al. 2005; Phan et al. 2002). Given that this effect was
not found in unmedicated bipolar patients, these results suggest
changes in regional gray matter brain content related to lithium
treatment and may reflect its postulated effect of neuropil
increase manifested as increases in gray matter volume (Moore et
al. 2000b). Further corroborating these data in a prospective MRI
study with healthy volunteers, we found significant increases in
gray matter concentration in the left cingulate, left precuneus,
and right superior frontal gyrus after 4 weeks of lithium treatment
(Monkul et al. 2004).
These findings are also consistent with a recent voxel-based
morphometry investigation (Adler et al. 2005) that observed
areas of significantly greater gray matter in several brain regions,
including portions of the anterior cingulate, ventral prefrontal
cortex, fusiform gyrus, and primary and supplementary motor
cortex, in a sample of adult bipolar patients on a variety of
medications. Although the authors interpret their findings as
possibly reflective of preapoptotic osmotic changes or hypertro-
phy, they did not explicitly investigate differential medication
effects, leaving open the question of the etiology of these
neuroanatomic differences. In contrast, using similar methods,
Lyoo et al. (2004) found reduced gray matter density in left
anterior cingulate and right inferior frontal gyrus in bipolar
patients relative to comparison subjects. In this study, only 25%
of patients were currently taking lithium, while a slight majority
(39%) were unmedicated.
While very little is currently known regarding the functional
significance of lithium-associated brain changes, functional neu-
roimaging studies offer preliminary evidence that mood-stabiliz-
ing medications may normalize functional abnormalities within
frontotemporal neural systems in bipolar illness (Blumberg et al.
2005). In addition, two recent functional neuroimaging studies
have reported decreases in task-associated physiological activity
following 2 weeks of lithium treatment in both euthymic bipolar
patients (Silverstone et al. 2005) and healthy volunteers (Bell et
al. 2005). The relationship of such physiological changes to
structural neuroanatomic changes is unknown and clearly war-
rants further investigation.
Figure 5. Scatterplot depicting quadratic relation-
ship between duration of lithium usage (in weeks)
tionship was observed between weeks on lithium
and overall gray matter density [R2? .38, F ?
5.13(17), p ? .018], indicating that duration of lith-
lar patients. GMD, gray matter density.
C.E. Bearden et al.
BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2007;62:7–16 13
We did not detect an effect of lithium dosage or a significant
linear correlation between duration of lithium usage and GMD.
However, in this naturalistic study, a quadratic (inverted U-
shaped) relationship was observed between overall GMD and
weeks of lithium treatment. The onset of lithium’s neuroprotec-
tive action appears to require about 7 days of treatment, at least
in cultured cells (Manji and Lenox 2000). Moreover, the thera-
peutic effects of mood stabilizers are generally not immediately
reversed on discontinuation, suggesting a progressive and com-
plex biological response (Manji et al. 2000a). In rats treated by
diet for 2 or 4 weeks, lithium at therapeutic doses has been
shown to increase the activity of two prominent transcription
factors, AP-1 and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP)-
response element binding protein (CREB), in cultured cerebellar
granule cells and in distinct brain regions, including the frontal
cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebellum (Ozaki and
However, it is difficult to infer from these animal studies what
might be predicted over a longer time course in humans. While
prior studies in human subjects have detected effects of lithium
treatment on gray matter volume within 4 weeks (Moore et al.
2000a, 2000b), it is unsurprising that the relationship between
duration of treatment and brain changes is complex and
nonlinear. Although gray matter increases attributable to
lithium treatment would be expected to reach asymptote at
some point, the inverted U-shaped function is somewhat
unexpected and may possibly reflect a complex interaction
between effects of lithium treatment and normal aging pro-
cesses. Because these questions cannot be addressed in this
naturalistic, cross-sectional study, we are actively investigating
neuroanatomic, as well as neurocognitive, effects of duration
and dosage of lithium treatment in a longitudinal follow-up
Our findings suggest that some of the inconsistencies be-
tween prior neuroanatomic studies of patients with bipolar
disorder may be attributable to competing processes of disease-
related atrophy and/or tissue reduction pitted against possible
neurotrophic or neuroprotective effects of mood-stabilizing med-
ication. Consistent with this possibility, Drevets et al. (1997)
previously reported that a small subregion of the anterior cingu-
late, the subgenual prefrontal cortex (SGPFC), was about 40%
smaller in patients with bipolar disorder than in matched control
subjects; however, they subsequently found that the patients
treated with lithium or valproate had significantly higher SGPFC
volumes than nontreated patients and did not differ from control
Although the mechanism of action of lithium is still largely
unknown, recent animal and human studies have provided
converging evidence for its potential neuroprotective and neu-
rotrophic effects (e.g., Manji et al. 2000a). At the molecular level,
both lithium and valproate robustly increase levels of the neu-
roprotective protein B-cell lymphoma protein-2 (bcl-2) in the
frontal cortex (Chen et al. 1999) and inhibit the proapoptotic
protein glycogen synthase kinase-3? (GSK-3?) in the central
nervous system (CNS) (Chen et al. 1999; Manji et al. 2000a).
B-cell lymphoma protein-2 is part of a well-characterized protein
family that regulates apoptotic cell death, acting on mitochondria
to stabilize membrane integrity and prevent release of apopto-
genic factors (Manji et al. 2000b). Glycogen synthase kinase-3? is
implicated in regulation of various cytoskeletal processes and
disease-related neuronal death (Chen et al. 1999; Jope 1999;
Manji et al. 2000a). Its inhibition by lithium is thought to be
protective against processes of programmed cell death (Hetman
et al. 2000). It is unclear which of these cellular actions is related
to lithium’s therapeutic effects; an increasing number of studies
are now attempting to elucidate the processes that convert these
second messenger-mediated events into long-term cellular phe-
Notably, recent postmortem neuropathologic studies have
documented reduced neuronal density in brain regions in which
we found evidence for robustly increased gray matter density in
lithium-treated patients, particularly the anterior cingulate (Benes
et al. 2001; Bouras et al. 2001). Although effects of mood-
stabilizing medications were not explicitly examined in these
studies, the question of whether lithium treatment has long-term
neuroprotective benefits that persist following termination of
treatment is also of fundamental importance.
Certain limitations of the current study must be noted. Be-
cause we did not specifically design this study to examine the
effects of lithium treatment, we were unable to match the patient
groups on all clinical variables; specifically, there was a nonsig-
nificant trend toward higher depression severity scores in the
untreated group at the time of scanning. However, given that
prior studies have not reported structural anatomic differences as
a function of current mood state (Brambilla et al. 2005), we do
not believe that this presents a significant confound. Further,
while patients with bipolar II disorder were proportionally
overrepresented in the untreated group, bipolar II disorder
patients did not significantly differ from bipolar I disorder
patients in terms of GMD [means: bipolar I disorder ? .38 ? .03
versus .38 ? .06 for bipolar II disorder; F(1,26) ? .12, p ? .73].
Thus, the higher proportion of bipolar II disorder patients in the
untreated group cannot account for this pattern of findings. With
regard to medication treatment, our sample included patients
who had been on lithium for varying time periods and dosages
were not uniform across subjects. In the context of a clinical trial,
such variables could be better controlled. In addition, while
some subjects were taking more than one medication, results did
not change when these subjects were excluded from analysis.
These limitations notwithstanding, as this study is, to our knowl-
edge, the first to characterize the pattern of gray matter differ-
ences across the cortical surface in lithium-treated bipolar pa-
tients, replication with a larger homogenous group of subjects
may serve to confirm the results observed here.
Given the small sample size in the lithium-untreated group
and the cross-sectional nature of this investigation, these findings
do not conclusively demonstrate that greater gray matter con-
centration in the lithium-treated group results from medication
effects alone. Although robust differences were detected be-
tween the lithium-treated group and normal control subjects, the
group difference comparison for lithium-treated versus untreated
bipolar patients reached statistical significance only for the right
anterior cingulate after permutation analysis to correct for mul-
tiple comparisons. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that these
regional increases were present prior to initiation of lithium and
instead reflect neuronal pathology intrinsic to bipolar illness,
perhaps resulting from a selective failure of these systems to
myelinate, which could result in more tissue segmenting as gray
matter in these brain regions. However, this explanation is
unlikely, given the clear absence of differences between the
untreated group and normal control subjects, as well as converg-
ing evidence demonstrating gray matter increases resulting from
short-term lithium treatment in healthy volunteers (Monkul et al.
2004; Moore et al. 2000b). In addition, while we cannot exclude
the possibility that the observed gray matter differences in the
lithium-treated group are related to osmotic effects of lithium
14 BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2007;62:7–16
C.E. Bearden et al.
leading to changes in water content in the brain, a purely osmotic
action would be unlikely to be restricted to gray matter alone
(Sassi et al. 2002); the absence of any differences in white matter
argues against this interpretation. Notably, other psychotropic
agents, including valproate (Chen et al. 1999) and atypical antipsy-
chotics (Braus et al. 2001), may also affect neuronal viability. These
observations demonstrate the importance of taking medication
effects into account when interpreting data from in vivo neuroim-
aging studies and postmortem reports. Furthermore, other factors
that may contribute to GMD increases in bipolar patients should be
systematically examined in future investigations.
In conclusion, the sensitive cortical pattern matching methods
employed in this study were able to detect prominent gray matter
enlargement, most pronounced in bilateral cingulate and paral-
imbic cortices, in lithium-treated patients with bipolar disorder
relative to healthy control subjects. It is tempting to infer that the
observed gray matter increases may suggest a mechanism of
action for lithium’s therapeutic effects, but these findings clearly
need to be replicated in other studies. The pattern of results
observed here, combined with those of prior studies indicating
structural and neurochemical differences as a function of lithium
treatment, suggest that reanalysis of previously collected neuro-
imaging data may be an efficient way to substantially increase
our current understanding of the magnitude and time course of
lithium’s effects on the brain. Future studies should also assess
whether valproate or other medications that effectively treat
bipolar disorder lead to similar increases in brain gray matter in
vivo and further investigate the clinical and functional relevance
of these results.
This work was partly supported by K23 MH074644-01 (CEB),
MH 29618, MH 01736, MH 030915, MH 068662, MH 068766,
RR020571, Krus Endowed Chair in Psychiatry (University of
Texas Health Science Center San Antonio), Veterans Adminis-
tration (VA Merit Review), National Alliance for Research on
Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), and CAPES Founda-
tion (Brazil). Algorithm development was funded by the Na-
tional Center for Research Resources, the National Institute for
Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, and the National
Institute on Aging (EB01651, RR019771, AG021431).
DJK has served on Advisory Boards of Eli Lilly & Company,
Forest Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Pfizer, Inc., and Solvay/Wyeth
Pharmaceuticals and also served as a Consultant for Servier
Amerique. None of the other authors have financial disclosures
pertinent to the contents of the manuscript.
EF serves on advisory boards for Pfizer, Inc., and Eli Lilly, as
a consultant to Pfizer, Italia, and Novartis, USA, and is the
recipient of an investigator-initiated grant from Forest Research
We thank Robert M. Bilder, Ph.D., ABPP, for helpful com-
ments on the manuscript.
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