Researchers of the AMC, including Susanne la Fleur, have shown, in collaboration with Yale, that electrical stimulation of the brain (Deep Brain Stimulation or DBS) improves blood sugar regulation in humans. Their paper was published in Science Translational Medicine on 23 May 2018. This is the first time that the relationship between electrical stimulation of the brain and insulin regulation is highlighted, and this research may, in the future, lead to new therapies for people with type 2 diabetes.
Animal research has shown that the brain plays a role in the regulation of blood glucose levels. Here it is shown, for the first time, that blood glucose regulation improves by electrically stimulating (DBS) a brain area that is sensitive to reward and that regulates appetite.
Within the AMC DBS is successfully used for treating Parkinson’s disease and severe compulsive disorders. When principal investigator and internist-endocrinologist Dr Mireille Serlie was studying a patient with diabetes who was also being treated with DBS for his compulsive disorder, she found that his blood sugar regulation had improved. This led to further investigation. She discovered that DBS reinforced the action of the hormone insulin in patients with obsessive compulsive disorder. This hormone, insulin, keeps the blood sugar levels within normal range.
DEep brain stimulation: effect on dopamine
Earlier, AMC researchers had shown that DBS in this brain area elevates the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in appetite regulation and in the motivation to eat. The researchers hypothesized that dopamine in this brain area affects blood sugar regulation by enhancing the action of insulin. They went on to test whether the opposite was true as well: and indeed, blood sugar levels did deteriorate when there was a shortage of dopamine. The last step was confirmation, by researchers of Yale University in the USA, of the claim that specific stimulation of dopamine cells lowers blood sugar in mice.
“This study shows that electrical manipulation of a specific area in the brain improves blood sugar regulation. This study forms the basis for further research into the possibility of treating diabetes with medication, or by electrically or possibly magnetically influencing the brain”, says Serlie. In the next few years research will have to show how the brain uses dopamine to lower the blood sugar level, and which brain area plays the biggest part when it comes to influencing blood sugar levels and would thus be the most likely candidate for treatment.