Researchers identify diabetes link to cognitive impairment in older adults

November 8, 2011

Many complications of diabetes, including kidney disease, foot problems and vision problems are generally well recognized. But the disease's impact on the brain is often overlooked.

For the past five years, a team led by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) neurophysiologist Vera Novak, MD, PhD, has been studying the effects of on in older individuals and has determined that , depression and other types of are a serious consequence of this widespread disease.

Now, Novak's team has identified a key mechanism behind this course of events. In a study published in the November 2011 issue of the journal , they report that in older patients with diabetes, two adhesion molecules – sVCAM and sICAM – cause inflammation in the , triggering a series of events that affect blood vessels and, eventually, cause brain tissue to atrophy. Importantly, they found that the gray matter in the brain's frontal and temporal regions -- responsible for such critical functions as decision-making, language, verbal memory and complex tasks – is the area most affected by these events.

"In our previous work, we had found that patients with diabetes had significantly more brain atrophy than did a control group," explains Novak, Director of the Syncope and Falls in the Elderly (SAFE) Program in the Division of Gerontology at BIDMC and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. "In fact, at the age of 65, the average person's brain shrinks about one percent a year, but in a diabetic patient, brain volume can be lowered by as much as 15 percent."

Diabetes develops when glucose builds up in the blood instead of entering the body's cells to be used as energy. Known as hyperglycemia, this condition often goes hand-in-hand with inflammation. Novak wanted to determine if chronic inflammation of the blood vessels was causing altered blood flow to the brain in patients with diabetes.

To test this hypothesis, Novak's team recruited 147 study subjects, averaging 65 years of age. Seventy one of the subjects had type 2 diabetes and had been taking medication to manage their conditions for at least five years. The other 76 were age and sex-matched non-diabetic controls.

Study subjects underwent a series of cognitive tests, balance tests and standard blood-pressure and blood-glucose tests. Serum samples were also collected to measure adhesion molecules and several other markers of systemic inflammation. To determine perfusion (blood flow) measures in the brain, patients also underwent functional MRI testing, in which a specialized imaging technique known as arterial spin labeling (developed by BIDMC MR physicist David Alsop, PhD) was used in conjunction with a standard MRI to measure vascular reactivity in several brain regions and to show changes in blood flow.

As predicted, the scans showed that the diabetic patients not only had greater blood vessel constriction than the control subjects, but they also had more atrophied brain tissue, particularly gray matter. The results also showed that, in the patients with diabetes, the frontal, temporal and parietal regions of the brain were most affected. Similarly, the team's measurements of serum markers confirmed that high glucose levels were strongly correlated with higher levels of inflammatory cytokines.

"It appears that chronic hyperglycemia and insulin resistance – the hallmarks of diabetes – trigger the release of [sVCAM and sICAM] and set off a cascade of events leading to the development of chronic inflammation," says Novak. "Once chronic inflammation sets in, blood vessels constrict, blood flow is reduced, and brain tissue is damaged. "

This discovery now provides two biomarkers of altered vascular reactivity in the brain. "If these markers can be identified before the brain is damaged, we can take steps to try and intervene," says Novak, explaining that some data indicates that medications may improve vascoreactivity.

But more important, she says, the new findings provide still more reason for doctors and patients to focus greater attention on the management – and prevention – of diabetes.

"Cognitive decline affects a person's ability to successfully complete even the simplest of everyday tasks, such as walking, talking or writing," says Novak. "There are currently 25.8 million cases of type 2 diabetes in the United States alone, which is more than eight percent of our total population. The effects of diabetes on the brain have been grossly neglected, and, as our findings confirm, are issues that need to be addressed."

Related Stories

Diabetes may significantly increase your risk of dementia

September 19, 2011

People with diabetes appear to be at a significantly increased risk of developing dementia, according to a study published in the September 20, 2011, print issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of ...

Recommended for you

Viruses thrive in big families, in sickness and in health

August 5, 2015

The BIG LoVE (Utah Better Identification of Germs-Longitudinal Viral Epidemiology) study, led by scientists at the University of Utah School of Medicine, finds that each bundle of joy puts the entire household at increased ...

Experimental MERS vaccine shows promise in animal studies

July 28, 2015

A two-step regimen of experimental vaccines against Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) prompted immune responses in mice and rhesus macaques, report National Institutes of Health scientists who designed the vaccines. ...

Can social isolation fuel epidemics?

July 21, 2015

Conventional wisdom has it that the more people stay within their own social groups and avoid others, the less likely it is small disease outbreaks turn into full-blown epidemics. But the conventional wisdom is wrong, according ...

Lack of knowledge on animal disease leaves humans at risk

July 20, 2015

Researchers from the University of Sydney have painted the most detailed picture to date of major infectious diseases shared between wildlife and livestock, and found a huge gap in knowledge about diseases which could spread ...

IBD genetically similar in Europeans and non-Europeans

July 20, 2015

The first genetic study of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to include individuals from diverse populations has shown that the regions of the genome underlying the disease are consistent around the world. This study, conducted ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.