To determine whether central nervous conduction deficits are related to the degree of peripheral neuropathy somatosensory evoked potentials (SEP) were measured after tibial nerve stimulation in 51 healthy subjects aged 39.3 (SE 2.0, (range 21-71) years and 100 insulin dependent diabetic patients aged 37.3 (1.5, 18-73) years. Five criteria were used for staging of peripheral neuropathy: nerve conduction; thermal discrimination threshold; vibration perception threshold; tendon reflexes; and neuropathic symptoms. Thirty seven patients had fewer than two abnormalities among the first four criteria and no symptoms (stage 0 = no neuropathy), 37 had 2 or more abnormalities but no symptoms (stage 1 = subclinical neuropathy); 26 had 2 or more abnormalities in conjunction with symptoms (stage 2 = symptomatic neuropathy). Multiple regression analysis was used to define the age and height dependent limits of normal of SEP at the 97.5th and 2.5th centiles. In five patients with stage 1, seven patients with stage 2, but no patient with stage 0 the individual SEP components were unrecordable. The relative frequencies of abnormally prolonged or non-evokable popliteal N8 latency as well as cortical N33 latency and N33/P40 amplitude increased significantly from stage 0 (3-30%) to stage 1 (22-62%) and stage 2 (46-84%) (p < 0.05 for each component and stage). The numbers and percentages of abnormal recordable spinal N22-30 and supraspinal N30-33 interpeak latencies were two (6.3%) and four (11.8%) in patients with stage 0, but these rates did not increase in subjects with stage 1 or 2. The components of SEP were significantly associated with the indices of peripheral and autonomic function tests. There were no major relations between the latencies of SEP and duration of diabetes or prevailing glycaemic control. These findings suggest that the degree of dysfunction along the somatosensory afferent pathways in insulin dependent diabetic patients depends on the stage of peripheral neuropathy; is not related to the degree of glycaemic control or duration of diabetes; and can be characterized mainly by an alteration of the cortical sensory complex and peripheral transmission delay, while spinal and supraspinal conduction deficits are detected infrequently.
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