JDRF researchers at the University of Sheffield have shed new light on the effect that diabetic neuropathy has on the brain.
The work could lead to better ways of monitoring, and subsequently treating, the condition in future.
Diabetic neuropathy is a condition that damages the nervous system – the network that carries messages between the brain and all parts of the body. It affects around a third of people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and occurs when long-term high blood glucose levels damage the blood vessels that supply the nerves.
Previous studies have suggested that this damage is mostly confined to the areas outside the brain, with any damage to the brain being limited. For researchers hoping to find treatments for the condition, this suggestion has focused attention on nerves in the rest of the body.
However, the Sheffield team found that MRI scans of the brain can detect changes caused by diabetic neuropathy. The condition seems to reduce the volume of the brain’s grey matter, which is involved in processing touch and pain sensory information.
The finding means that doctors treating the condition have another avenue to explore when searching for treatments, and a new way to monitor the progress of the condition. It also complements JDRF-funded research into improving people’s glucose management – such as the artificial pancreas project – as this can help reduce the risk of diabetic neuropathy in the first place.
Dr Dinesh Selvarajah, Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Diabetes at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, who led the research, said: ‘Diabetic nerve damage has a massive impact on the quality of people’s lives, physically, mentally and socially.
‘Our study reveals for the first time how extensively involved diabetic neuropathy is in the brain, causing shrinking and a reduction in the main part of the brain associated with sensation.
‘The next steps will be for us to investigate at what stage [this change] occurs, what the consequences of this are and whether it can be prevented as it could be impacting on patients’ behaviour and psychology.’
Karen Addington, Chief Executive of JDRF, said: ‘This excellent research highlights new ways of monitoring the effects of diabetic neuropathy, which will hopefully lead to the development of new and innovative ways of treating this life-changing complication.’
The research was published in the journal Diabetes Care.