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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4

Sugar May Harm Brain Health

High levels of blood glucose are linked to memory impairments



THINKSTOCK

A poor diet can eat away at brain health. Now a study in Neurology helps elucidate why. It suggests that eating a lot of sugar or other carbohydrates can be hazardous to both brain structure and function.

Diabetes, which is characterized by chronically high levels of blood glucose, has been linked to an elevated risk of dementia and a smaller hippocampus, a brain region critical for memory. The new study sought to identify whether glucose had an effect on memory even in people without the disease because having it could induce other brain changes that confound the data. In the experiment, researchers at the Charité University Medical Center in Berlin evaluated both short- and long-term glucose markers in 141 healthy, nondiabetic older adults. The participants performed a memory test and underwent imaging to assess the structure of their hippocampus.

Higher levels on both glucose measures were associated with worse memory, as well as a smaller hippocampus and compromised hippocampal structure. The researchers also found that the structural changes partially accounted for the statistical link between glucose and memory. According to study co-author Agnes Flöel, a neurologist at Charité, the results “provide further evidence that glucose might directly contribute to hippocampal atrophy,” but she cautions that their data cannot establish a causal relation between sugar and brain health.

These findings indicate that even in the absence of diabetes or glucose intolerance, higher blood sugar may harm the brain and disrupt memory function. Future research will need to characterize how glucose exerts these effects and whether dietary or lifestyle interventions might reverse such pathological changes.

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