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Lithium for Manic Depression

John Cade (1912-1980), a psychiatrist and medical educator, revolutionized the treatment of manic depression in 1949 by discovering lithium. It is regarded as the medical breakthrough that has led to the successful management of a mental condition which currently effects up to 2% of the world’s population.

John Cade (1912-1980) was a 1934 University of Melbourne medical graduate. His wartime experiences during World War II convinced him that nutrition and body chemistry were two important determining factors in mental health. Electric shock treatments, lobotomies and Freudian psychotherapy were the main treatments for depression at that time, so Dr. Cade set to looking into chemical alternatives.

While investigating potential anticonvulsant agents in a hospital pantry in 1940, he suspected that salt lithium had a sedative effect in guinea pigs. He tested the drug for side effects on himself and then successfully trialed lithium on patients.

His results were published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) in 1949 and it revolutionised the way the world thought about mental illness, marking the beginning of psychopharmacology – the use of drugs to manage psychiatric conditions. The MJA reported in July 2004 that Cade’s article was the number one most cited MJA article.

It took about 20 years of struggle before lithium treatment for manic depression was accepted. But the work of Cade and his fellow supporters meant the chance for mental stability for hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Lithium remains the benchmark for bipolar treatments today.

Dr John Cade

This biotech innovator has been closely associated with the development of this biotechnology innovation.

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