Meet the Mind behind Cutting-Edge Diabetes Research Faculty Feature: Get to Know Dr. David McDougal

Meet the Mind behind Cutting-Edge Diabetes Research
Faculty Feature: Get to Know Dr. David McDougal

Released: Thursday, April 04, 2019

Growing up, Dr. David McDougal was always interested in psychology and science. He knew that a career in neuroscience was a good fit for him, but he couldn't even imagine that he might someday discover a new way to help people with diabetes live longer.

Attending LSU in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dr. McDougal received two bachelor’s degrees: one in biological sciences and the other in psychology. He later earned a PhD in vision sciences from the University of Alabama and joined the team of researchers at Pennington Biomedical in 2008. He is currently an assistant professor-research and head of the Neurobiology of Metabolic Dysfunction Laboratory where the focus is on finding new ways to improve lifelong health with an emphasis on diabetes research.

After spending a decade at Pennington Biomedical, McDougal has contributed to more than 20 research publications, abstracts and reviews, and he has received funding endorsement from such renowned organizations as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Diabetes Association (ADA).  

A Novel Biomarker Discovery that May Directly Improve Healthcare for People with Diabetes
McDougal’s latest study is one of those rare, and exciting, instances in a biomedical research career when a scientist might see individual health improve as a result of his or her findings.
“Most of our work is done in the initial stages of discovery,” McDougal explains. “But this study, which has uncovered a potential new biomarker of chronic hypoglycemia in patients with diabetes, could translate directly into the physician’s office to improve care.”
Chronic low blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia-associated autonomic failure (HAAF), is a severe condition characterized by the loss of the physical symptoms of low blood sugar. HAAF can lead to ever worsening – and often life-threatening – episodes of severe low blood sugar for people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

HAAF Caused by Exposure to Low Blood Glucose
“Exposure to low blood glucose levels usually only happens when patients with diabetes start treating high blood glucose and something goes awry,” McDougal says. They may self-administer too much insulin while trying to regulate blood sugar levels, causing a low blood sugar dip. “Consistently getting the insulin dose just right many times each day is a tough balancing act for most,” McDougal points out. 
Multiple low blood sugar exposures over a short time frame can create a downward spiral, leading to HAAF. “A couple of things are happening as things progress to HAAF,” McDougal adds.  “At some point, the brain stops its usual response of directing hormones to be released into the bloodstream to prevent low blood sugar levels.  Also, patients who experience low blood sugar don’t feel faint and shaky anymore, the symptoms which had previously sounded a warning bell to ingest glucose as soon as possible.”   
Without that warning bell, individuals with diabetes are unaware that medical attention is needed – immediately.

The Solution May be in the Brain’s Glial Cells
High blood sugar exposure is also silent and dangerous. But healthcare providers can use blood tests, such as a hemoglobin A1c, to determine if a patient has been experiencing high blood sugar over days, weeks or months. “High hemoglobin A1c numbers tell us that treatments are needed before more damage occurs,” McDougal says. “We don’t currently have the same type of test for low blood sugar exposure, which also causes ‘silent’ damage.  Our latest research findings, however, are the next step toward developing such a diagnostic tool.”  
It’s all about the glial cells and their capacity to metabolize acetate. 
Recent findings in the Neurobiology of Metabolic Dysfunction Laboratory labs at Pennington Biomedical, as well as others, suggest that glial cells’ rate or capacity for metabolizing acetate gives scientists the clues needed to determine if low blood sugar episodes have been occurring. 
“When the brain is starved of glucose, it begins to use alternative fuel sources – like acetate,” McDougal says.  “Our brain imaging equipment can tell us if the glial cells’ rate or capacity for metabolizing acetate is increasing. Our clinical trial data shows a correlation between this change and the risk for developing low blood sugar in humans.”

Q&A with Dr. McDougal

Q: What is your favorite meal?
A: Anything that’s shared with friends and family.

Q: What is your preferred form of exercise?
A: Typing (lol)!

Q: What are your hobbies?
A: Fishing, camping, and boating.

Q: Favorite thing about Louisiana?
A: The people and the opportunities for outdoor activities.

What’s next? 
McDougal hopes to prove that these clinical findings also happen in people with diabetes. He’s confident that his findings for HAAF will soon improve health outcomes for people with diabetes in his community, Louisiana and around the world. For more about Dr. McDougal and his work, visit his faculty page on Pennington Biomedical’s website,

For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit