White Matter Matters

Although scientists have long regarded the brain's white matter as passive infrastructure, new work shows that it actively affects learning and mental illness
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Sculpture by Margie McDonald, photographed by Frank Ross

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.

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