Approximately half of the people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes experience peripheral neuropathy—weakness, numbness, and pain, primarily in the hands and feet.
The condition occurs when high levels of sugar circulating in the blood damage peripheral nerves.
In a study from Salk Institute, scientists found another factor contributing to diabetes-associated peripheral neuropathy: altered amino acid metabolism.
The team found that diabetic mice with low levels of two related amino acids, serine and glycine, are at higher risk for peripheral neuropathy.
What’s more, the researchers were able to alleviate neuropathy symptoms in diabetic mice by supplementing their diets with serine.
The study adds to growing evidence that some often-underappreciated, “non-essential” amino acids play important roles in the nervous system.
The findings may provide a new way to identify people at high risk for peripheral neuropathy, as well as a potential treatment option.
Amino acids are the building blocks that makeup proteins and specialized fat molecules called sphingolipids, which are abundant in the nervous system.
Low levels of the amino acid serine force the body to incorporate a different amino acid in sphingolipids, which changes their structure. These atypical sphingolipids then accumulate, which may contribute to peripheral nerve damage.
While the team found this accumulation in diabetic mice, the same amino acid switch and sphingolipid changes occur in a rare human genetic disease marked by peripheral sensory neuropathy, indicating that the phenomenon is consistent across many species.
These findings underscore the importance of amino acid metabolism and sphingolipid production in the maintenance of a healthy peripheral nervous system.
Serine deficiency has also been associated with various neurodegenerative disorders.
For example, the team previously found a link between altered serine and sphingolipid metabolism in patients with macular telangiectasia type 2, a condition that causes vision loss.
Serine is currently being tested in clinical trials for its safety and efficacy in treating macular telangiectasia and Alzheimer’s disease.
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The study was conducted by Christian Metallo et al and published in Nature.
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