Experts find ‘brain damage’ link to diabetes

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RESEARCHERS from Yorkshire have shed important new light on diabetes with the discovery nerve damage linked to the illness causes more harm to the brain than expected.

New findings published today by experts from Sheffield reveal the extent of damage can endure in areas of the brain called “grey matter” - a key component of the central nervous system involved in touch and pain sensory perception.

The breakthrough could pave the way for better assessment of diabetic neuropathy, which affects around a third of people with diabetes, causing significant pain in feet and legs which is often difficult to treat.

It is the main factor triggering diabetic foot ulcers, which is the most common reason people with diabetes stay in hospital for lengthy periods, and the main cause of lower limb amputations and problems with balance and posture. Doctors in Sheffield, who are world leaders in treating diabetic nerve damage, hope the discovery could lead to better treatments for sufferers.

In the study by experts from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Sheffield University, recent advances in brain imaging and analysis using magnetic resonance (MR) scanning were used to reveal parts of the brain shrank in people with diabetic neuropathy. Previous studies had shown the impact on the brain was limited to peripheral areas.

Consultant diabetologist Prof Solomon Tesfaye, of Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital and the study’s principal investigator, said: “For decades diabetic neuropathy was considered a disease that affects the peripheral nerves only, but this study has shown the impact of the disease also extends to involve the brain, opening a whole new area for further research aimed at effective treatments for this disabling disease.”

Senior lecturer and consultant at the hospital, Dinesh Selvarajah, said: “Diabetic nerve damage has a massive impact on the quality of people’s lives, physically, mentally and socially. With the number of people suffering from diabetes around the world soaring, these are significant findings.

“Our study reveals for the first time how extensively involved diabetic neuropathy is in the brain, causing shrinking and a reduction in the main part of the brain associated with sensation.

“This is a new insight which will go a long way towards helping us better understand, treat and prevent a disease which we thought to be fairly innocuous in terms of effects on the brain.”

Iain Wilkinson, an MR physics professor in academic radiology at the university, said: “To see leading-edge MRI technology pinpoint changes that might play an influential factor in the quality of so many lives highlights the need for clinical research like this.”

The grey matter region identified is a major component of the central nervous system, consisting of brain cells, or neurons, which process information from sensory organs in order to decide and execute functions. The study was backed by a $486,000 grant from the charity JDRF.