Because Mg2+ and Li+ ions have similar chemical properties, we have hypothesized that Li+/Mg2+ competition for Mg2+ binding sites is the molecular basis for the therapeutic action of lithium in manic-depressive illness. By fluorescence spectroscopy with furaptra-loaded cells, the free intracellular Mg2+ concentration within the intact neuroblastoma cells was found to increase from 0.39 ± 0.04 mM to 0.60 ± 0.04 mM during a 40-min Li+ incubation in which the total intracellular Li+ concentration increased from 0 to 5.5 mM. Our fluorescence microscopy observations of Li+-free and Li+-loaded cells also indicate an increase in free Mg2+ concentration upon Li+ incubation. By 31P NMR, the free intracellular Mg2+ concentrations for Li+-free cells was 0.35 ± 0.03 mM and 0.80 ± 0.04 mM for Li+-loaded cells (final total intracellular Li+ concentration of 16 mM). If a Li+/Mg2+ competition mechanism is present in neuroblastoma cells, an increase in the total intracellular Li+ concentration is expected to result in an increase in the free intracellular Mg2+ concentration, because Li+ displaces Mg2+ from its binding sites within the nerve cell. The fluorescence spectroscopy, fluorescence microscopy, and 31P NMR spectroscopy studies presented here have shown this to be the case.
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