Neural Networks, Cognition, and Diabetes: What Is the Connection?

  1. David T. Jones
  1. Department of Neurology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota
  1. Corresponding author: David T. Jones, jones.david{at}mayo.edu.

Diabetes has been associated not only with subtle cognitive deficits in mental speed and flexibility (1,2) but also with an increased risk for development of significant disruption in cognitive function in the form of dementia (3). In order to prevent subtle cognitive sequelae and potentially reduce the burden of dementia on an aging world population (4), a better understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms underlying the cognitive dysfunction in diabetes is needed.

There are several factors associated with diabetes and its management beyond acute metabolic or vascular insults that are potentially involved in this cognitive disruption, a few of which will be briefly reviewed here. Hyperglycemia may affect cognitive function by altering synaptic plasticity in the brain (5), increasing levels of oxidative stress (6), and/or subtly altering the cerebral microvasculature (7). Treatment of diabetes may lead to slight or occasionally more severe periods of hypoglycemia, which may translate to structural and metabolic alterations of the central nervous systems and subsequent cognitive dysfunction. However, it has been observed that subtle diabetes-related cognitive changes are associated with chronic hyperglycemia rather than episodes of hypoglycemia (8). The same study also observed that there was no significant difference in cognitive function between aggressively managed subjects with reduced levels of microvascular complications and those with a greater degree of microvascular complications. Other studies have observed this as well (9). This may indicate that the association between chronic hyperglycemia and subtle cognitive dysfunction is related to factors outside of microvascular complications alone. In this context, the potential impact of chronic exposure to endogenous or exogenous insulin above the normal physiological range should be critically evaluated.

Mild cognitive impairment is associated not only with age of diabetes onset and disease duration but also with insulin treatment (10). The risk of dementia is also highest in people …

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