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White matter of the brain: Function & diseases

Wonder what white matter of the brain does? This is some of its functions and what happens when it becomes diseased.

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September 21, 2022
6 min read

The human brain is a wonder. It's the most complex organ in our bodies and contains billions of neurons, each with its own role to play in helping us interpret information and make decisions every day. Neuroscientists have learned much about how this amazing organ works, including the function of white matter in brain—the fatty tissue that holds together nerve fibers in our brains.

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White matter in brain: function and diseases

In this article, we'll look at what the white matter in brain is, what it does for your brain health, and what happens when it becomes diseased.

What is white matter in the brain?

Put simply, white matter is the insulation of your brain.

It's made of fatty tissue that supports the brain’s grey matter, which is made up of neurons and other cells. Grey matter is responsible for processing information and transmitting signals between different parts of your brain. White matter allows these signals to travel quickly from one part of the organ to another.

It also helps to protect your brain from damage, by acting as a sort of cushion.

What does white matter in the brain do?

White matter in the brain helps to conduct signals between brain cells and is involved in protecting, maintaining, and shaping the brain.

The main function of white matter is to facilitate communication between different parts of the brain. This means that it helps transmit signals between different regions and enables us to move, think, speak, and remember. White matter also plays an important role in protecting your brain from damage; its insulating properties act as a sort of cushion against injury.

But, sadly, the white matter itself can become damaged. White matter disease is a term that refers to a collection of degenerative disorders that affect the white matter of the brain.

What does it mean when an MRI shows white matter?

An MRI scan is a non-invasive way to look at the structures of the brain. It uses magnetism and radio waves to create detailed images of your brain and spinal cord. When an MRI scan shows white matter in brain image, it might mean the white matter is damaged or diseased—this often goes undiagnosed until an MRI scan reveals its presence.

What is white matter disease?

White matter disease is a term used to describe a number of disorders that affect the white matter of the brain. As white matter is made up of nerve fibers called axons, which carry messages between different regions of the brain and spinal cord, these disorders can cause problems with thinking and movement.

White matter disease, also known as leukoaraiosis, can be caused by several factors, including:

  • Stroke

  • Brain tumors

  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)

  • Vascular disease

Here are some of the more common conditions that affect the white matter in brain:

Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL)

PVL occurs when newborns have been deprived of oxygen before or during birth; this form of white matter disease usually goes away on its own within weeks or months after birth.

PVL can lead to developmental delays if it affects the cerebral cortex and can permanently damage the spinal cord if it affects both sides of the body at once.

Diffuse axonal injury (DAI)

DAI occurs when there is rapid acceleration or deceleration while traveling through air; it damages axons throughout the brain and spine but does not cause permanent harm in most cases unless there has been severe trauma leading up to DAI (for example falling from a height).

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

MS causes damage by attacking myelin sheaths around neurons' projections—the microscopic extensions that connect one neuron with another—and disrupting how electrical signals travel across synapses between neurons; this results in communication problems between areas within brains as well as problems transmitting information from one part of our bodies to another.

Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative brain disease that causes a loss of cognitive function, including memory loss and confusion. The disease develops over many years. In its early stages, people may have difficulty with tasks such as planning and organization; in later stages, language skills and the ability to form new memories are lost.

Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)

NPH is a condition that occurs when cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) builds up in the brain’s ventricles. The increased pressure inside the brain puts pressure on its tissue and causes problems with thinking, walking and coordination. The disease most often affects older adults, but it can also occur in younger people who have had a head injury or aneurysm.

White matter disease symptoms

In addition to memory loss, common symptoms of white matter disease include:

  • Difficulty thinking (cognitive impairment)

  • Difficulty speaking (aphasia)

  • Difficulty walking (ataxia)

  • Difficulty seeing ("double vision") and hearing (deafness)

  • Confusion and dizziness

The symptoms vary with the specific type of white matter disease the person has acquired.

How serious is white matter disease?

The symptoms of white matter disease can be mild or severe. Some people may not experience any symptoms, while others may have trouble walking or holding a conversation.

People with severe white matter disease may experience seizures and increase the risk of falls and injuries. Some people experience problems with their vision or hearing. The disease is also progressive, which means it gets worse over time. In some cases, the symptoms of white matter disease can be managed with medication. In other cases, surgery may be needed to remove the damaged area of the brain or spinal cord.

How to repair white matter in the brain

Before you need to know how to repair white matter in the brain, you need to make sure that that's the cause of the problems you're experiencing. If you think it might be, the first step is to see your doctor for an evaluation.

They’ll ask questions about your symptoms and medical history, then perform tests such as CT scans or MRIs LINK to determine how much damage has been done to your brain tissue. If they suspect white matter disease, they may order additional testing such as blood work (such as heavy metal levels) or lumbar punctures (spinal tap) so they can confirm whether or not it’s present.

They'll then provide you with treatment options. These could include medications, physical therapy, or even surgery, depending on the severity of your symptoms.

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White matter in brain: the key takeaway

Overall, there is a lot of information to learn about white matter in brain and white matter disease. It’s important to understand what white matter is and how it impacts our health. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of white matter disease, reach out to your doctor for help.

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