What Causes Changes in White Matter?

There are a lot of causes for changes in white matter; some are natural factors that occur normally and are generally harmless. Other causes can be neurological diseases that can specifically target the brain. There are also some external factors that can cause white matter changes, such as recreational drugs, inhalants, and other substances that are harmful to a person’s overall health.

One common factor that causes changes in white matter is aging. Almost all cells inside the human body are constantly renewed, including the neurons located in the white matter. The regeneration process, however, slows down when the person ages and can sometimes result in changes, like lesions or scar-like patches in the brain, or ultimately, death of the neurons. These changes are said to begin at the age of 60 and decrease a person’s cognitive ability. This is why many elderly people experience forgetfulness and deterioration and are sometimes described as senile.

Diseases that are known to be “degenerative” can also bring about changes in white matter, sometimes slowly and sometimes in rapid progression. Examples of these diseases are multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. White matter is the brain’s “wiring system” that connects the cells within the gray matter to each other. When the white matter experience changes or does not regenerate properly, it cannot transmit messages to the gray matter’s cell bodies, and information such as muscle movements and memory recall cannot be processed. Other medical conditions that can affect the white matter include hypertension, strokes, and severe migraines.

Substance abuse can also cause major deterioration and changes in white matter, especially through continuous use. Inhalants, substances and drugs that are introduced via inhalation are especially dangerous because they shoot towards the brain more rapidly. These drugs are considered toxic to the body, and when they enter the brain, they disrupt the communication process between the gray and white matter and eventually destroy the latter’s neurons. Examples of these inhalants are methamphetamine, heroin, and even cigarettes. Some inhalants can also come in the form of household products such as hairspray, dust and insect repellants and nail polish remover.

White matter changes can be delayed, prevented, and sometimes treated. Being involved in mentally-challenging activities and games can keep the brain functioning properly. A healthy lifestyle through proper diet and exercise can also help keep strokes and hypertension at bay. Avoiding vices such as drug use, smoking, and alcohol is also advisable. For patients with degenerative diseases, doctors usually recommend treatment or medication to regulate and lessen the effects of the disease.

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White matter in the brain allows different parts of the brain to communicate. Damaged white matter is found in many brain diseases including: Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and more.

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