Prevalence, Pathogenesis, and Treatment of Renal Dysfunction Associated With Chronic Lithium Therapy

R. Boton, M. Gaviria, D. C. Batlle*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

303 Scopus citations


From the analysis of several studies published from 1979 to 1986 comprising 1,172 patients, we estimated that glomerular filtration rate (GFR) was normal In 85% of unselected patients on chronic lithium therapy. The remaining 15% of patients displayed only mild reduction In GFR, clustering at approximately 60 mL/min. Thus, the data available to date do not support earlier concerns that long-term lithium therapy could eventuate into renal insufficiency. The most prevalent renal effect of lithium is impairment of concentrating ability, which we estimated to be present in at least 54% of 1,105 unselected patients on chronic lithium therapy. This defect translated into overt polyuria in only 19% of unselected cases. A renal lesion confined to the collecting tubule has been described in humans who have taken lithium for short periods of time. This lesion may represent the collecting tubule’s response to the intracellular accumulation of lithium, which interferes with cAMP formation and results in an early and probably reversible inhibition of antidiuretic hormone (ADH)-mediated water transport. However, long-term lithium therapy may induce a progressive and partly Irreversible defect in concentrating ability. The potential risk for dehydration associated with lithium-induced polyuria, as well as the discomfort inherent to this side effect, deserves evaluation and consideration for therapeutic intervention. Amiloride has additional advantages over conventional treatment of nephrogenic diabetes Insipidus using thiazide diuretics. The action of amiloride on ADH-mediated water transport seems specific in as much as it is capable of preventing the uptake of lithium in high resistance epithelia and thereby prevents the inhibitory effect of intracellular lithium on water transport. Unlike thiazides, amiloride has a weak natriuretic effect and is less likely to increase plasma lithium levels by causing volume contraction. In addition, amiloride, by conserving potassium, obviates the need for potassium supplementation that Is usually required to prevent hypokalemia when thiazldes are used to treat lithium-induced polyuria. Since amiloride may prevent chronic intracellular lithium accumulation in the collecting tubule, future studies should elucidate whether amiloride also has a role in preventing lithium-induced chronic tubulo-interstitial damage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)329-345
Number of pages17
JournalAmerican Journal of Kidney Diseases
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1987


  • adverse effects
  • glomerular filtration rate
  • lithium
  • nephrogenic diabetes insipidus
  • renal function

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Nephrology


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