Low blood sugar shortens attention span

October 2, 2001 in Diabetes & Diabetes Prevention, Healthy Eating

Low blood sugar shortens attention span

Employees who forego lunch in an attempt to meet a deadline may finish the task, but their work might fall short of company standards, results of a study from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which can occur when healthy individuals neglect to eat, can slow the speed at which people process information and shorten their attention span. Hypoglycemia occurs when the brain is temporarily deprived of glucose, its main source of energy. Although low blood sugar can be reversed with just a few bites of a sandwich, it can affect daily activities at work and at home.

The results of the study apply to both healthy individuals who ignore hunger pangs and to people with diabetes, who must monitor blood sugar (glucose) and insulin levels on an ongoing basis.

To examine the effects of low blood sugar on the brain, the investigators induced hypoglycemia in 20 healthy men and women through injections of synthetic insulin. Insulin, the body's key blood sugar-regulating hormone, allows the body to use sugar from the blood as fuel. Injecting insulin into the bloodstream can cause dips in blood sugar levels. Volunteers underwent a series of tests to measure attention during periods of low and normal blood sugar.

One test asked study participants to search for particular symbols on a map for a 2-minute period. In another, volunteers pretended they were on an elevator and were asked to determine which floor the elevator had reached based on a series of tones played on a tape.

Individuals were less able to pay attention during hypoglycemia, the report indicates, and they also processed visual and auditory information more slowly. In the map tests, participants were able to pick out designated symbols correctly but the speed at which they located symbols declined.

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