Copyright © 2015 Elsevier B.V. and ECNP. All rights reserved.
Telomeres consist of exanucleotide tandem repeats and proteins complexes at the end of chromosome ends. Telomeres shorten at each cell division, and as such telomere length is a marker of cellular age. Accelerated telomere shortening and cell senescence have been associated with a number of chronic medical conditions, including psychiatric disorders, where increased prevalence of age-related disorders and shorter telomere length have been reported. Shorter telomeres in psychiatric patients are thought to be the consequence of allostatic load, consisting in the overactivation of allostatic systems due to chronic exposure to severe medical conditions and failure to adapt to chronic stressful stimuli. Most of the studies on telomere length in psychiatry have focused on major depressive disorder, but recent findings have shown shorter leukocyte telomere length in bipolar disorder patients and suggested that lithium may counteract telomeres shortening. These findings provided new insights into the pathophysiology of bipolar disorder and the mechanism of action of lithium. In this review we will present findings from the literature on telomere length in bipolar disorder, with a specific focus on lithium. We will also discuss advances and limitations of published work as well as methodological issues and potential confounding factors that should be taken into account when designing research protocols to study telomere length.