Diabetic Encephalopathy

What is Diabetic Encephalopathy?

Damage to the brain caused by diabetes is referred to as diabetic encephalopathy, the general term for brain disease or damage. The way in which symptoms are presented varies based on whether someone with the condition is a type 1 diabetic or a type 2 diabetic. Treatment typically includes blood sugar management efforts.

What are the Symptoms of Diabetic Encephalopathy?

Diabetic encephalopathy is caused by blood sugar levels that are consistently and excessively high (hyperglycemia) or excessively low (hypoglycemia). Patients with the condition often present a wide range of physical and mental symptoms.

Symptoms include

  • Noticeable cognitive decline similar to what occurs with dementia
  • Altered mental state
  • Lapses in memory
  • Lack of coordination
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Personality changes

Type 1 Diabetes

Encephalopathy in type 1 diabetics may result in learning disabilities and memory issues. Neurotransmitters in the brain may be affected by a lack of sufficient insulin. The condition is sometimes reversible once blood sugar levels are restored to normal levels.

Type 2 Diabetes

Possibly linked to a resistance to insulin that leads to the build-up of brain plaque (abnormal protein clusters), encephalopathy in type 2 diabetics may contribute to oxidative stress, which creates abnormal molecules. Blood vessels in the brain may also be affected by inflammation.

Diabetic Encephalopathy Causes

Diabetic encephalopathy is a form of brain damage caused by diabetes. As a relatively unknown diabetes complication, diabetic encephalopathy has become more common as the number of people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes rises. Technically there are several varieties of encephalopathy, some temporary and others permanent. Diabetic encephalopathy develops mentally and physically as diabetes goes untreated. Diabetic encephalopathy has been known to be common in some low-income areas where people can’t properly monitor their diabetes. Diabetic encephalopathy occurs as a result of acute hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) or severe hyperglycemia (severely high blood sugar levels). The condition is exhibited differently in the two types of diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes

Diabetic Encephalopathy in type 2 diabetes cases raises the possibility of a person developing Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other kinds of dementia. In fact, according to research, people with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to exhibit Alzheimer’s symptoms and approximately 1.75 times as likely to eventually develop another variety of dementia.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes typically afflicts younger people, meaning this form of diabetic encephalopathy rarely becomes dementia. Type 1 diabetic encephalopathy is thought to be caused by an insulin deficiency that alters neurotransmitters and other components of the brain. Consequently, those with type 1 diabetic encephalopathy do typically develop learning disabilities and issues with their memory. Because diabetic encephalopathy affects growing brains, it can potentially stunt intelligence and cognitive development.

How is Diabetic Encephalopathy Treated?

Diagnosis is made by considering a patient’s history with diabetes and by eliminating other possible causes of memory loss or cognitive impairment. Patients are encouraged to maintain healthy blood sugar levels to prevent further progression of the condition. While there is no standard treatment for diabetic encephalopathy, some patients respond well to drugs that manage dementia symptoms.

Diabetic encephalopathy is sometimes misdiagnosed since it’s an often overlooked complication of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. A 2011 study suggests that individuals with type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop some form of dementia than non-diabetics. Conversely, individuals with type 1 diabetes with encephalopathy are less likely to develop dementia.

Diabetic Encephalopathy Prevention

In order to prevent diabetic encephalopathy, maintaining adequate blood sugar levels is essential, as it helps to arrest any further damage. Medical researchers are still developing methods of more effectively preventing and treating diabetic encephalopathy, but for the most effective result, the approach should be tailored to the patient. In cases of type 2 diabetic encephalopathy, methods that prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia include a cocktail of prescription pharmaceuticals that have been successful across a spectrum of patients.

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Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
December 14, 2017