Research finds differential impact of blood sugar on cognitive health in type 1 diabetes patients

A new study by McLean Hospital and Washington State University researchers has brought new insights into how blood sugar levels affect the brain, especially in people with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

The study, which utilized the latest digital technology to track glucose and cognitive function, has revealed that fluctuations in blood sugar can slow down cognitive abilities, such as processing speed, but impacts vary significantly among individuals.

Type 1 diabetes is known for its unpredictable blood sugar levels, which can swing dramatically.

Previous studies in controlled lab settings suggested that both high and low blood sugar levels could impair brain function, but it was hard to measure this in the real world due to technological constraints.

Now, with the advent of digital glucose sensors and smartphone-based cognitive tests, researchers have been able to monitor the cognitive effects of blood sugar changes as they occur in daily life.

Over the course of fifteen days, 200 participants with T1D had their glucose levels measured every five minutes and completed cognitive tests on their smartphones three times a day.

This intensive data collection enabled the team to assess how natural fluctuations in glucose affected cognitive functions like processing speed and sustained attention.

The findings showed that cognitive function, particularly processing speed, was indeed impaired during periods of unusual blood sugar levels—either too high or too low compared to an individual’s normal range.

Interestingly, the study noted that the impact of these fluctuations on cognitive speed varied from person to person. Certain groups, such as older adults and those with additional health conditions, were more vulnerable to the effects of glucose variability.

This variability among individuals highlights the importance of personalized approaches to diabetes management.

Laura Germine, Ph.D., co-senior author and director of McLean’s Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology, emphasized that their results show a wide range of responses to glucose fluctuations, underscoring the need to consider these differences in treatment and management strategies.

An intriguing aspect of the study was the observation that participants’ peak cognitive performance occurred at glucose levels slightly above their typical range, although performance declined as glucose levels increased further.

This suggests that the brain might adapt to the glucose levels it is most accustomed to, offering a potential explanation for why individuals with diabetes often report feeling better at slightly higher glucose levels.

The study opens the door to further research, including exploring whether optimizing glucose levels through automated diabetes management systems could shift the glucose range associated with peak cognitive performance back to a healthier range.

This research not only deepens our understanding of the link between blood sugar and cognitive function but also points towards the development of more effective diabetes management strategies that take into account individual differences and the holistic well-being of those affected by T1D.

If you care about blood sugar, please read studies about why blood sugar is high in the morning, and how to cook sweet potatoes without increasing blood sugar.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about 9 unhealthy habits that damage your brain, and results showing this stuff in cannabis may protect aging brain, treat Alzheimer’s.

The research findings can be found in npj Digital Medicine.

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