The discovery of insulin and its subsequent mass manufacture transformed the lives of people with type 1 and 2 diabetes. Insulin, however, was a drug with a 'dark side'. It brought with it the risk of iatrogenic hypoglycaemia. In this short review, the cellular consequences of recurrent hypoglycaemia, with a particular focus on the brain, are discussed. Using the ventromedial hypothalamus as an exemplar, this review highlights how recurrent hypoglycaemia has an impact on the specialised cells in the brain that are critical to the regulation of glucose homeostasis and the counterregulatory response to hypoglycaemia. In these cells, recurrent hypoglycaemia initiates a series of adaptations that ensure that they are more resilient to subsequent hypoglycaemia, but this leads to impaired hypoglycaemia awareness and a paradoxical increased risk of severe hypoglycaemia. This review also highlights how hypoglycaemia, as an oxidative stressor, may also exacerbate chronic hyperglycaemia-induced increases in oxidative stress and inflammation, leading to damage to vulnerable brain regions (and other end organs) and accelerating cognitive decline. Pre-clinical research indicates that glucose recovery following hypoglycaemia is considered a period where reactive oxygen species generation and oxidative stress are pronounced and can exacerbate the longer-term consequence of chronic hypoglycaemia. It is proposed that prior glycaemic control, hypoglycaemia and the degree of rebound hyperglycaemia interact synergistically to accelerate oxidative stress and inflammation, which may explain why increased glycaemic variability is now increasingly considered a risk factor for the complications of diabetes.
Rory J McCrimmon