Glycogen: the forgotten cerebral energy store

J Neurosci Res. 2003 Oct 15;74(2):179-83. doi: 10.1002/jnr.10785.


The brain contains a significant amount of glycogen that is an order of magnitude smaller than that in muscle, but several-fold higher than the cerebral glucose content. Although the precise role of brain glycogen to date is unknown, it seems affected by focal activation, neurotransmitters, and overall electrical activity and hormones. Based on its relatively low concentration, the role of brain glycogen as a significant energy store has been discounted. This work reviews recent experimental evidence that brain glycogen is an important reserve of glucose equivalents: (1) glial glycogen can provide the majority of the glucose supply deficit during hypoglycemia for more than 100 min, consistent with the proposal that glial lactate is a fuel for neurons; (2) glycogen concentrations may be as high as 10 micromol/g, substantially higher than was thought previously; (3) glucose cycling in and out of glycogen amounts to approximately 1% of the cerebral metabolic rate of glucose (CMRglc) in human and rat brain, amounting to an effective stability of glycogen in the resting awake brain during euglycemia and hyperglycemia, (4) brain glycogen metabolism/concentrations are insulin/glucose sensitive; and (5) after a single episode of hypoglycemia, brain glycogen levels rebound to levels that exceed the pre-hypoglycemic concentrations (supercompensation). This experimental evidence supports the proposal that brain glycogen may be involved in the development of diabetes complications, specifically impaired glucose sensing (hypoglycemia unawareness) observed clinically in some diabetes patients under insulin treatment. It is proposed further that brain glycogen becomes important in any metabolic state where supply transiently cannot meet demand, such conditions that could occur during prolonged focal activation, sleep deprivation, seizures, and mild hypoxia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cell Communication / physiology
  • Diabetes Complications
  • Diabetes Mellitus / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus / physiopathology
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Glycogen / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemia / etiology
  • Hypoglycemia / metabolism*
  • Hypoglycemia / physiopathology
  • Neuroglia / metabolism
  • Neurons / metabolism


  • Glycogen