Research shows how blood sugar levels affect brains of young diabetics

by Barbara Hewitt on June 16, 2015

Brain function in teenagers with type 1 diabetes can be affected by high and low blood sugar,say scientists who have recorded significant changes affecting memory and other functions.

A study carried out by researchers at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne is the first to explain how brain function can be impaired by both hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia.

brain diabetes

The research involved 20 patients, all of whom were between the ages of 12 and 18 and had type 1 diabetes.

The research involved 20 patients, all of whom were between the ages of 12 and 18 and had type 1 diabetes. They used MRI scans to record brain activity during a period of healthy blood glucose levels, low blood glucose levels and high blood glucose levels.

They found that, during episodes of hypoglycaemia they had significantly less brain activity in the temporoparietal cortex, which is largely responsible for memory. They also found that during a hyperglycaemia episode the youngsters showed signs of increased activity in the basal ganglia, which is associated eye movements, cognition, and emotion.

“Functional MRI techniques allow for non-invasive assessment of brain function, and studies now looking at healthy adults and diabetic adults have shown significant differences in brain function during abnormal glycaemia, mostly hypoglycaemia. However, there are limited data from paediatric cohorts and differences may exist as a function of ongoing neurodevelopment or age,” said Michele O’Connell, of the Royal Children’s Hospital.

“By design, we chose to place particular emphasis on working memory, and therefore these regions were important to us. The multiple areas of significant change indicate that during glycaemic extremes, the brain needs to adapt and appears to preference certain regions over others,” he added.

He pointed out that several studies have indicated that type 1 diabetes affects cognitive development, but this is the first to explain exactly how. Type 1 diabetes has long been associated with memory loss and is often mentioned in connection with Alzheimer’s disease.

“This study is one of the first to describe mechanisms of acute brain dysfunction in type 1 diabetic youths during glycaemic extremes. We have shown differential mechanistic and regional effects of hypo and hyperglycaemia with persistent abnormalities in neuronal activity at recovery despite euglycemia,” the research paper says.

The researchers hope that more work can be carried out and believe that it allows neuroprotective therapeutic options to be explored further.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the DiabetesForum.com Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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