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Type 1 diabetes could negatively affect kids' brain function

Researchers say the disease can have more wide-reaching effects than many people realize

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Many parents struggle to get their kids to follow healthy diets, and those who are less successful wind up being at higher risk for conditions like diabetes.  

Now, researchers from Stanford Medicine found that Type 1 diabetes could be associated with compromised brain function in children. 

“Our findings suggest that, in children with Type 1 diabetes, the brain isn’t being as efficient as it could,” said researcher Lara Foland-Ross, PhD. “The takeaway from our study is that, despite a lot of attention from endocrinologists to this group of patients, and real improvements in clinical guidelines, children with diabetes are still at risk of having learning and behavioral issues that are likely associated with their disease.” 

How the brain is affected

To understand the effect that diabetes could have on the brain, the researchers compared nearly 100 children with diabetes to nearly 60 children without the disease. 

All of the participants completed assessments that analyzed their current brain function so the researchers could determine how diabetes was affecting children in ways that many parents and experts may not realize. 

“Kids with diabetes have chronic swings in blood-glucose levels, and glucose is important for brain development,” said Dr. Foland-Ross. “It was important to capture what is going on in the brains of these kids functionally.” 

All the participants received brain scans, during which the researchers conducted a popular cognitive test that would measure the kids’ overall brain function during an activity that required their complete focus. 

In analyzing the brain scans, the researchers discovered that the children with Type 1 diabetes were on par performance-wise, but it took their brains a bit longer to get to the correct responses. Further analysis revealed that certain parts of the brain had to do more work to properly complete the tasks, though this wasn’t the case for those who didn’t have diabetes. 

The researchers hope that parents keep these findings in mind, particularly for those whose kids were diagnosed at an early age. The reason, they say, is because differences in brain function were more prominent if kids were younger at the time of diagnosis. 

“We hope that with improvements in devices for diabetes treatment, these findings will either decrease in severity or go away,” said researcher Allan Reiss. “Young brains have the most potential for plasticity and repair. But children also have a long time to live with the consequences if problems with brain function persist.” 

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