A new study has found a link between the length of time someone has been living with type 2 diabetes and changes to the makeup of their brain.

The longer a person has the condition, the greater the chance they will experience these changes, according to researchers who have said the findings highlight the importance of type 2 diabetes prevention.

The team, led by Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, studied data from 51 middle-aged Pima American Indians with type 2 diabetes.

They used memory and language tests – called the NIH Toolbox Cognitive Battery – and MRI scans to examine the link between diabetes, cognition and the structure of the brain.

The results show that those people who have had type 2 diabetes for a longer period of time have reduced mean cortical thickness and grey matter volumes, along with an increased volume of white matter hyperintensities.

While the study participants’ cognition was no different to people without type 2 diabetes, the researchers say screening is necessary to help protect the brain health of people with the condition.

First author Dr Evan Reynolds, 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 revealed that complications arising from diabetes, including chronic kidney disease, are also associated with changes to the structure of the brain.

The findings support another of the researchers’ previous studies, which highlighted how diabetes complications raise the risk of developing a cognitive condition by 2.45 times in people aged 40 to 60.

A key finding of this latest study is that neuropathy, a common complication of diabetes, was not linked to cognitive function.

Senior author Distinguished Professor Dr Eva Feldman, from the University of Michigan, 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 a preserving a healthy brain is part of our mission.”

The study has been published in Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology.

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