Posts Tagged With: neuron

Diabetes and Alzheimer’s – (Dis)Proving the Not-So-Sweet Link

Release your kung fu grip on that salad plate. Maybe a milkshake isn’t as bad as you think – at least not for your brain.

Will a milkshake now freeze your brain later? (Art by  São Paulo ( Brazil )-based designer and illustrator Gusta Vicentini)

Will a milkshake now freeze your brain later?
(Art by São Paulo ( Brazil )-based designer and illustrator Gusta Vicentini)

For nearly a decade,  researchers have been honing in on a  link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. People with diabetes are twice as likely to get the disease. The problem, studies suggest, is impaired insulin function, the hallmark of diabetes.

Insulin dysregulation starves neurons of glucose, their primary energy source. It weakens blood vessels, mucking up delicate brain circulation. Some research implies that normal insulin levels tamp down sticky proteins that clump up in neuron-killing brain lesions. Messed-up insulin levels might break down that safeguard, actually setting the stage for protein buildup.

But a new study that uses tissue from dead brains and  images from live ones questions the assumption that diabetes leads to Alzheimer’s.

Two groups were involved in the study, lead by Dr. Madhav Thambisetty of the National Institute on Aging. One consisted of 197 participants enrolled in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. While alive, these folks had oral glucose tolerance tests, which measure how the body responds to a sugar blast. When they died, they had a brain autopsy. The second group included 53 living subjects who had the same test, and also an imaging exam showing whether there was any Alzheimer’s pathology in their brain.

Short answer: There were no correlations between any level of impaired insulin function and the presence of amyloid plaques – the protein clumps that destroy brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease. Neither diabetes nor its younger siblings, pre-diabetes or insulin resistance, showed any relation at all to the physical signs of Alzheimer’s.

So should we celebrate this conclusion with a double mocha latte binge?  Maybe not. Dr. Thambisetty qualified his findings by saying most of the subjects didn’t experience the years of insulin dysregulation probably needed to cause that kind of damage. Just last week, a neuroscientist found that insulin in the brain seems to impair the way neurons connect to each other.  And there’s still that pesky worldwide finding that diabetes doubles your Alzheimer’s risk.

Like  most things in life, science sometimes presents conflicting views. But this finding doesn’t change the fact that what’s good for your heart, your lungs, your muscles, your cancer risk, your stroke risk, is also good for your brain.

Exercise, happy plate, no ashtray: Good. Junk food slurping, couch surfing, tobacco smoking: Bad

It seems the ancients had it right: A sound mind arises from a sound body.


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The first story I wrote about Alzheimer’s disease opened my mind to a hidden world.

After 30 years of reporting, I’d perfected the technique of writing accurately about mysterious things like town planning, sewerage, and county budgets: Admit right at the get-go that I had no clue what we were talking about and throw myself on the mercy of my expert.

My modus included a regular stream of quasi-interested exclamations, like “Oh wow!” But 10 minutes into that first Alzheimer’s interview with that first expert, I quit faking it.

He buckled me into a roller coaster careening right down into the brain’s center, to the mysterious region that records your mother’s face and your husband’s voice, your shopping list and a poem you wrote in 10th grade, the one where you daydream about the boy who made you fail typing.

Our conversation wandered from the macroscopic to the microscopic. I learned about the neurons’ secret handshake, how they pass silent signals that encode the past and interpret the present. We sped infinitesimally smaller still, through enzymes that snip proteins, proteins that form clumps, and clumps that stick to neurons who then forget their secret handshake and send your high school sweetheart into oblivion.

That interview was my singularity – a flash that’s lured me on for eight years. It’s lead me down paths as divergent – and connected – as any neural network. Paths I hope to share here.

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