The likelihood of experiencing changes in brain structure increases with the amount of time someone lives with type 2 diabetes, a recent study says.

Researchers at Michigan Medicine examined the relationship between diabetes, cognition and makeup of the brain by analysing data from 51 middle aged Pima American Indians who are living with type 2 diabetes.

The participants completed the NIH Toolbox Cognitive Battery, a series of memory and language tests developed by the National Institutes of Health, and underwent an MRI.

The results show that the participants who had lived with type 2 diabetes for longer had a lower mean cortical thickness and grey matter volume. They also had a greater volume of white matter hyperintensities.

The MRI results showed the negative effect of living with diabetes for a prolonged period of time on brain health and highlighted the importance of avoiding early onset type 2 diabetes.

Cognitive results of those with type 2 diabetes and those without type 2 diabetes did not differ.

First author of the research, Evan Reynolds, Ph.D., research fellow and lead statistician for the NeuroNetwork for Emerging Therapies at Michigan Medicine, said: “This is among the first times that alterations of the brain’s structure have been associated with duration of diabetes.

“Although we did not find reduced cognition through the NIH Toolbox, this might not give the entire picture. The fact that we saw negative changes in the brain itself provides evidence for the need for early screening for cognitive disorders in patients with type 2 diabetes to improve patient care and quality of life.”

The study also showed that diabetes complications such as chronic kidney disease are associated with structural changes to the brain which corresponds with a similar study that found diabetes complications lead to a greater risk of developing cognitive disorders in people aged 40 to 60.

Senior author of the research, Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., James W. Albers Distinguished Professor at U-M, the Russell N. DeJong Professor of Neurology at U-M Medical School and director of the NeuroNetwork for Emerging Therapies at Michigan Medicine, said: “This study is critical to our understanding of how diabetes affects brain health and lays the groundwork for a larger, longitudinal study addressing how persons with diabetes can maintain a healthy brain.

“Regardless of the underlying mechanisms, preventing these conditions in people with type 2 diabetes is critical to maintaining brain health. Educating the public on the risks that diabetes poses to preserving a healthy brain is part of our mission.”

The study was published in Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology.

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