Diabetes and the brain (I)

I recently learned that the probability that I have brain-damage as a result of my diabetes is higher than I thought it was.

I first took note of the fact that there might be a link between diabetes and brain development some years ago, but this is a topic I knew very little about before reading the book I’m currently reading. Below I have added some relevant quotes from chapters 10 and 11 of the book:

“Cognitive decrements [in adults with type 1 diabetes] are limited to only some cognitive domains and can best be characterised as a slowing of mental speed and a diminished mental flexibility, whereas learning and memory are generally spared. […] the cognitive decrements are mild in magnitude […] and seem neither to be progressive over time, nor to be substantially worse in older adults. […] neuroimaging studies […] suggest that type 1 diabetic patients have relatively subtle reductions in brain volume but these structural changes may be more pronounced in patients with an early disease onset.”

“With the rise of the subspecialty area ‘medical neuropsychology’ […] it has become apparent that many medical conditions may […] affect the structure and function of the central nervous system (CNS). Diabetes mellitus has received much attention in that regard, and there is now an extensive literature demonstrating that adults with type 1 diabetes have an elevated risk of CNS anomalies. This literature is no longer limited to small cross-sectional studies in relatively selected populations of young adults with type 1 diabetes, but now includes studies that investigated the pattern and magnitude of neuropsychological decrements and the associated neuroradiological changes in much more detail, with more sensitive measurements, in both younger and older patients.”

“Compared to non-diabetic controls, the type 1 diabetic group [in a meta-analysis including 33 studies] demonstrated a significant overall lowered performance, as well as impairment in the cognitive domains intelligence, implicit memory, speed of information processing, psychomotor efficiency, visual and sustained attention, cognitive flexibility, and visual perception. There was no difference in explicit memory, motor speed, selective attention, or language function. […] These results strongly support the hypothesis that there is a relationship between cognitive dysfunction and type 1 diabetes. Clearly, there is a modest, but statistically significant, lowered cognitive performance in patients with type 1 diabetes compared to non-diabetic controls. The pattern of cognitive findings does not suggest decline in all cognitive domains, but is characterised by a slowing of mental speed and a diminished mental flexibility. Patients with type 1 diabetes seem to be less able to flexibly apply acquired knowledge in a new situation. […] In all, the cognitive problems we see in type 1 diabetes mimics the patterns of cognitive ageing. […] One of the problems with much of this research is that it is conducted in patients who are seen in specialised medical centres where care is very good. Other aspects of population selection may also have affected the results. Persons who participate in research projects that include a detailed work-up at a hospital tend to be less affected than persons who refuse participation. Possibly, specific studies that recruit type 1 adults from the community, with individuals being in poorer health, would result in greater cognitive deficits”.

“[N]eurocognitive research suggests that type 1 diabetes is primarily associated with psychomotor slowing and reductions in mental efficiency. This pattern is more consistent with damage to the brain’s white matter than with grey-matter abnormalities. […] A very large neuroimaging literature indicates that adults with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes manifest structural changes in a number of brain regions […]. MRI changes in the brain of patients with type 1 diabetes are relatively subtle. In terms of effect sizes, these are at best large enough to distinguish the patient group from the control group, but not large enough to classify an individual subject as being patient or control.”

“[T]he subtle cognitive decrements in speed of information processing and mental flexibility found in diabetic patients are not merely caused by acute metabolic derangements or psychological factors, but point to end-organ damage in the central nervous system. Although some uncertainty remains about the exact pathogenesis, several mechanisms through which diabetes may affect the brain have now been identified […] The issue whether or not repeated episodes of severe hypoglycaemia result in permanent mild cognitive impairment has been debated extensively in the literature. […] The meta-analysis on the effect of type 1 diabetes on cognition (1) does not support the idea that there are important negative effects from recurrent episodes of severe hypoglycaemia on cognitive functioning, and large prospective studies did not confirm the earlier observations […] there is no evidence for a linear relationship between recurrent episodes of hypoglycaemia and permanent brain dysfunction in adults. […] Cerebral microvascular pathology in diabetes may result in a decrease of regional cerebral blood flow and an alteration in cerebral metabolism, which could partly explain the occurrence of cognitive impairments. It could be hypothesised that vascular pathology disrupts white-matter integrity in a way that is akin to what one sees in peripheral neuropathy and as such could perhaps affect the integrity of neurotransmitter systems and as a consequence limits cognitive efficiency. These effects are likely to occur diffusely across the brain. Indeed, this is in line with MRI findings and other reports.”

“[An] important issue is the interaction between different disease variables. In particular, patients with diabetes onset before the age of 5 […] and patients with advanced microangiopathy might be more sensitive to the effects of hypoglycaemic episodes or elevated HbA1c levels. […] decrements in cognitive function have been observed as early as 2 years after the diagnosis (63). It is important to consider the possibility that the developing brain is more vulnerable to the effect of diabetes […] Diabetes has a marked effect on brain function and structure in children and adolescents. As a group, diabetic children are more likely to perform more poorly than their nondiabetic peers in the classroom and earn lower scores on measures of academic achievement and verbal intelligence. Specialized neuropsychological testing reveals evidence of dysfunction in a variety of cognitive domains, including sustained attention, visuoperceptual skills, and psychomotor speed. Children diagnosed early in life – before 7 years of age – appear to be most vulnerable, showing impairments on virtually all types of cognitive tests, with learning and memory skills being particularly affected. Results from neurophysiological, cerebrovascular, and neuroimaging studies also show evidence of CNS anomalies. Earlier research attributed diabetes-associated brain dysfunction to episodes of recurrent hypoglycemia, but more recent studies have generally failed to find strong support for that view.”

“[M]ethodological issues notwithstanding, extant research on diabetic children’s brain function has identified a number of themes […]. All other things being equal, children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes early in life – within the first 5–7 years of age – have the greatest risk of manifesting neurocognitive dysfunction, the magnitude of which is greater than that seen in children with a later onset of diabetes. The development of brain dysfunction seems to occur within a relatively brief period of time, often appearing within the first 2–3 years following diagnosis. It is not limited to performance on neuropsychological tests, but is manifested on a wide range of electrophysiological measures as marked neural slowing. Somewhat surprisingly, the magnitude of these effects does not seem to worsen appreciably with increasing duration of diabetes – at least through early adulthood. […] As a group, diabetic children earn somewhat lower grades in school as compared to their nondiabetic classmates, are more likely to fail or repeat a grade, perform more poorly on formal tests of academic achievement, and have lower IQ scores, particularly on tests of verbal intelligence.”

The most compelling evidence for a link between diabetes and poorer school outcomes has been provided by a Swedish population-based register study involving 5,159 children who developed diabetes between July 1997 and July 2000 and 1,330,968 nondiabetic children […] Those who developed diabetes very early in life (diagnosis before 2 years of age) had a significantly increased risk of not completing school as compared to either diabetic patients diagnosed after that age or to the reference population. Small, albeit statistically reliable between-group differences were noted in school marks, with diabetic children, regardless of age at diagnosis, consistently earning somewhat lower grades. Of note is their finding that the diabetic sample had a significantly lower likelihood of getting a high mark (passed with distinction or excellence) in two subjects and was less likely to take more advanced courses. The authors conclude that despite universal access to active diabetes care, diabetic children – particularly those with a very early disease onset – had a greatly increased risk of somewhat lower educational achievement […] Similar results have been reported by a number of smaller studies […] in the prospective Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) cohort study (22), […] only 68% of [the] diabetic sample completed 12 years of school, as compared to 85% of the nondiabetic comparison group […] Children with diabetes, especially those with an earlier onset, have also been found to require more remedial educational services and to be more likely to repeat a grade (25–28), to earn lower school grades over time (29), to experience somewhat greater school absenteeism (28, 30–32), to have a two to threefold increase in rates of depression (33– 35), and to manifest more externalizing behavior problems (25).”

“Children with diabetes have a greatly increased risk of manifesting mild neurocognitive dysfunction. This is an incontrovertible fact that has emerged from a large body of research conducted over the past 60 years […]. There is, however, less agreement about the details. […] On standardized tests of academic achievement, diabetic children generally perform somewhat worse than their healthy peers […] Performance on measures of verbal intelligence – particularly those that assess vocabulary knowledge and general information about the world – is frequently compromised in diabetic children (9, 14, 26, 40) and in adults (41) with a childhood onset of diabetes. The few studies that have followed subjects over time have noted that verbal IQ scores tend to decline as the duration of diabetes increases (13, 15, 29). These effects appear to be more pronounced in boys and in those children with an earlier onset of diabetes. Whether this phenomenon is a marker of cognitive decline or whether it reflects a delay in cognitive development cannot yet be determined […] it is possible, but remains unproven, that psychosocial processes (e.g., school absence, depression, distress, externalizing problems) (42), and/or multiple and prolonged periods of classroom inattention and reduced motivation secondary to acute and prolonged episodes of hypoglycemia (43–45) may be contributing to the poor academic outcomes characteristic of children with diabetes. Although it may seem more reasonable to attribute poorer school performance and lower IQ scores to diabetes-associated disruption of specific neurocognitive processes (e.g., attention, learning, memory) secondary to brain dysfunction, there is little compelling evidence to support that possibility at the present time.”

“Children and adults who develop diabetes within the first 5–7 years of life may show moderate cognitive dysfunction that can affect all cognitive domains, although the specific pattern varies, depending both on the cognitive domain assessed and on the child’s age at assessment. Data from a recent meta-analysis of 19 pediatric studies have indicated that effect sizes tend to range between ∼ 0.4 and 0.5 for measures of learning, memory, and attention, but are lower for other cognitive domains (47). For the younger child with an early onset of diabetes, decrements are particularly pronounced on visuospatial tasks that require copying complex designs, solving jigsaw puzzles, or using multi-colored blocks to reproduce designs, with girls more likely to earn lower scores than boys (8). By adolescence and early adulthood, gender differences are less apparent and deficits occur on measures of attention, mental efficiency, learning, memory, eye–hand coordination, and “executive functioning” (13, 26, 40, 48–50). Not only do children with an early onset of diabetes often – but not invariably – score lower than healthy comparison subjects, but a subset earn scores that fall into the “clinically impaired” range […]. According to one estimate, the prevalence of clinically significant impairment is approximately four times higher in those diagnosed within the first 6 years of life as compared to either those diagnosed after that age or to nondiabetic peers (25 vs. 6%) (49). Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that not all early onset diabetic children show cognitive dysfunction, and not all tests within a particular cognitive domain differentiate diabetic from nondiabetic subjects.”

“Slowed neural activity, measured at rest by electroencephalogram (EEG) and in response to sensory stimuli, is common in children with diabetes. On tests of auditory- or visual-evoked potentials (AEP; VEP), children and adolescents with more than a 2-year history of diabetes show significant slowing […] EEG recordings have also demonstrated abnormalities in diabetic adolescents in very good metabolic control. […] EEG abnormalities have also been associated with childhood diabetes. One large study noted that 26% of their diabetic subjects had abnormal EEG recordings, as compared to 7% of healthy controls […] diabetic children with EEG abnormalities recorded at diagnosis may be more likely to experience a seizure or coma (i.e., a severe hypoglycemic event) when blood glucose levels subsequently fall […] This intriguing possibility – that seizures occur in some diabetic children during hypoglycemia because of the presence of pre-existing brain dysfunction – requires further study.” 

“A very large body of research on adults with diabetes now demonstrates that the risk of developing a wide range of neurocognitive changes – poorer cognitive function, slower neural functioning, abnormalities in cerebral blood flow and brain metabolites, and reductions or alterations in gray and white-brain matter – is associated with chronically elevated blood glucose values […] Taken together, the limited animal research on this topic […] provides quite compelling support for the view that even relatively brief bouts of chronically elevated blood glucose values can induce structural and functional changes to the brain. […] [One pathophysiological model proposed is] the “diathesis” or vulnerability model […] According to this model, in the very young child diagnosed with diabetes, chronically elevated blood glucose levels interfere with normal brain maturation at a time when those neurodevelopmental processes are particularly labile, as they are during the first 5–7 years of life […]. The resulting alterations in brain organization that occur during this “sensitive period” will not only lead to delayed cognitive development and lasting cognitive dysfunction, but may also induce a predisposition or diathesis that increases the individual’s sensitivity to subsequent insults to the brain, as could be initiated by the prolonged neuroglycopenia that occurs during an episode of hypoglycemia. Data from most, but not all, research are consistent with that view. […] Research is only now beginning to focus on plausible pathophysiological mechanisms.”

After having read these chapters, I’m now sort-of-kind-of wondering to which extent my autism was/is also at least partly diabetes-mediated. There’s no evidence linking autism and diabetes presented in the chapters, but you do start to wonder even so – the central nervous system is complicated.. If diabetes did play a role there, that would probably be an argument for not considering potential diabetes-mediated brain changes in me as ‘minor’ despite my somewhat higher than average IQ (just to be clear, a high observed IQ in an individual does not preclude the possibility that diabetes had a negative IQ-effect – we don’t observe the counterfactual – but a high observed IQ does make a potential IQ-lowering effect less likely to have happened, all else equal).


December 21, 2016 - Posted by | books, diabetes, medicine, Neurology, personal

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