Scientists are only beginning to uncover the brain’s role in normal insulin and glucose control as it relates to diabetes. Likewise, the cognitive deficits associated with the disease are just recently being understood. So what has been discovered so far? Research has revealed that diabetes is associated with impaired cognitive function and an increased risk for dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. According to the Society for Neuroscience, brain cells, memory function, learning ability, and regulation of metabolic processes are all areas that are affected by glucose levels and diabetes. Let’s take a closer look:

The Science

When diabetes strikes and insulin's signal is ignored by the cells, the brain may not get the large amount of glucose energy it needs. Glucose is the quintessential brain food, and without a proper meal, the brain may lose cells and memory function. Studies are suggesting that insulin and related growth proteins in the brain are vital for cell survival--and both glucose and insulin appear to regulate many brain functions. The hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory, is affected by the lack of glucose energy needed to facilitate these processes. The cognitive deficits that occur are only beginning to be understood by researchers.

In addition to the hippocampus, the hypothalamus (the area of the brain responsible for regulating metabolic processes and activities) also appears to be involved. Things like hunger, thirst, body temperature, energy, balance, body weight, and the sensitivity of the liver and muscles to insulin all seem to be affected.

The Society for Neuroscience studies are showing that chronic episodes of high or low levels of blood glucose directly impacts insulin's action in the brain, thus damaging brain cells and leading to cognitive impairments. So the key to safeguarding against damaging your brain follows the hallmark of diabetes treatment recommended by the American Diabetes Association: tight controls around blood glucose levels.

What Should You Do?

If you or someone you love is suffering from diabetes, there are several steps you can take to help prevent complications associated with the disease. The American Diabetes Association recommends starting with a visit to your doctor and building a comprehensive healthcare team, which may include a diabetes educator, dietician, endocrinologist, optometrist, and podiatrist. This team will ensure that you are covered head to toe—and will help you better manage your condition.

And remember, tight controls around blood glucose levels are key. This involves checking your levels regularly with a glucose meter (ask your doctor about when and how often you should be using the meter.) If you’re using injections or oral medications, be sure to have a supply with you wherever you go in case of a hyperglycemic (high blood sugar) or hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) episode. You should also have a source of fast-acting glucose to combat low blood sugar. Examples include glucose tablets, hard candies, and fruit juice.

Don’t forget that there are many tools are at your disposal to guard against complications, which affect not only your body but also your mind. Talk to your healthcare team about how you can take full advantage of these resources.