Young Adults With Type 1 Diabetes Show Abnormal Brain Activity


Having diabetes may affect the way our brains work. Research is taking place to find out exactly how this occurs.

In a recent study, researchers describe how tying diabetes to cognitive impairment is tricky because many people with diabetes have other conditions like high blood pressure and obesity, which also affect cognition. That’s why they conducted a study in young adults with and without type 1 diabetes “who were virtually free of such comorbidities,” the study authors wrote in their abstract.

brain activity

Christine Embury is a graduate research assistant at the Center for Magnetoencephalography (MEG) at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She worked with Dr. Wilson, the study’s lead author and was kind enough to answer some questions.

In layman terms, she explains that “neural processing” is brain activity. “In our work, we relate brain activity in specific brain regions to task-specific cognitive processes, like working memory. Widespread brain networks are involved in this kind of complex processing including regions relating to verbal processing and attention, working together to accomplish task goals,” she writes.

Young, Healthy Type 1 Adults Tested

They matched two groups, one with and one without type 1 diabetes, on major health and demographic factors and had them all do a verbal working memory task during magnetoencephalographic (MEG) brain imaging. For the group with type 1 diabetes, the mean years of diabetes duration were only 12.4.

The researchers hypothesized that those with type 1 diabetes would have “altered neural dynamics in verbal working memory processing and that these differences would directly relate to clinical disease measures,” they wrote.

Higher A1c and Diabetes Duration May Alter Brain Activity

They found that those with type 1 diabetes had much stronger neural responses in the superior parietal cortices during memory encoding and much weaker activity in the parietal-occipital regions during maintenance compared to those without type 1 diabetes.

Diabetes duration and glycemic control were both “significantly correlated with neural responses in various brain regions,”

Embury explained that their findings suggest that “the longer one has the condition, the more the brain has to work to compensate for deficits incurred.” Higher A1c levels were also associated with compensatory brain activity, too.

The harrowing conclusion from the study authors is that even young, healthy adults with type 1 diabetes “already have aberrant neural processing relative to their non-diabetic peers, employing compensatory responses to perform the task, and glucose management and duration may play a central role.”

What would be the findings among type 1s who keep their A1c in non-diabetic range, one might wonder? This study suggests it is likely that elevated blood sugar over time is what changes the brain activity. These effects are possibly compounded over time in those with comorbidities like obesity and high blood pressure.

What is Verbal Working Memory?

According to this study, verbal working memory processing may be affected by type 1 diabetes. Embury shared an example of this and wrote, “Participants had to memorize a grid of letters and were later asked to identify if a probe letter was in the previous set of letters shown.” She said we have to use working memory any time that we’re trying to hold on to or manipulate a piece of information for a short amount of time, like remembering a person’s phone number.

The verbal part of “verbal working memory processing” just has to do with the way that the information is presented, like letters or numbers and “anything that requires language processing as well” Embury explains.

More research will help clarify these findings in the future.

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