- White matter, long thought to be passive tissue, actively affects how the brain learns and dysfunctions.
- Although gray matter (composed of neurons) does the brain’s thinking and calculating, white matter (composed of myelin-coated axons) controls the signals that neurons share, coordinating how well brain regions work together.
- A new type of magnetic resonance technology, called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), has for the first time shown white matter in action, revealing its underappreciated role.
- Myelin is only partially formed at birth and gradually develops in different regions throughout our 20s. The timing of growth and degree of completion can affect learning, self-control (and why teenagers may lack it), and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, autism and even pathological lying.
Imagine if we could peek through the skull to see what makes one brain smarter than another. Or to discover whether hidden traits might be driving a person’s schizophrenia or dyslexia. A new kind of imaging technique is helping scientists observe such evidence, and it is revealing a surprise: intelligence, and a variety of mental syndromes, may be influenced by tracts within the brain made exclusively of white matter.
Gray matter, the stuff between your ears your teachers chided you about, is where mental computation takes place and memories are stored. This cortex is the “topsoil” of the brain; it is composed of densely packed neuronal cell bodies—the decision-making parts of nerve cells, or neurons. Underneath it, however, is a bedrock of “white matter” that fills nearly half of the human brain—a far larger percentage than found in the brains of other animals. White matter is composed of millions of communications cables, each one containing a long, individual wire, or axon, coated with a white, fatty substance called myelin. Like the trunk lines that connect telephones in different parts of a country, this white cabling connects neurons in one region of the brain with those in other regions.
This article was originally published with the title White Matter Matters.