What Is the Arbor Vitae?

Andy Josiah

The arbor vitae is a tree-shaped white-colored component found in the cerebellum. It is known for its role in motor and sensory information that goes to and from this region of the brain, which is the center of the body’s nervous system. Due to its shape and structure, as well as its functions, its name means “tree of life” in Latin.

The arbor vitae, located in the cerebellum, has a branching appearance.
The arbor vitae, located in the cerebellum, has a branching appearance.

The cerebellum is the part of the brain that regulates a person’s motor control. This involves how the body moves and the sequence of body movements. More specifically, it plays a part in a person’s timing, coordination, and precision of movement. It does this by connecting with the body’s system of sensory organs, as well as inputs from other parts of the nervous system.

Thuja, or arbor vitae cypress.
Thuja, or arbor vitae cypress.

One of the inputs that it relies on is the arbor vitae, which is situated in the middle of the cerebellum. It belongs to a class of one of two main components of the central nervous system (CNS) known as white matter; the other main component is grey matter. The structure is mostly composed of myelinated axons, nerve fibers that are responsible for transmitting signals through the brain and spinal cord. It gets its pinkish-white color from the fatty component, myelin, which covers the axons.

White matter works with the grey matter in the brain. Acting as a network cable, it transports signals from grey matter to parts of the body’s nervous system, including the cerebellum. The myelin that surrounds the axons comprising the arbor vitae insulates its branches, speeding up the transmission of information.

This structure in particular, due to its branches, surrounds or can be found next to four types of grey matter in the cerebellum. There is the dentate nucleus, which comprises the biggest single structure that links the cerebellum with the other parts of the brain. Lying to the dentate nucleus’ medial side is the emboliform nucleus, which joins the globose nucleus to form the interposed nucleus. The globose nucleus is located lateral to the fastigial nucleus. These grey-matter aggregates form the four pairs of nuclei found in the cerebellum.

The “tree of life” moniker is a reference to an actual genus of coniferous trees in the cypress family. Called Thuja, trees in this genus are native to North America and Western Asia. The name also serves as a metaphor for the arbor vitae's interconnection within the cerebellum.

White matter is made up primarily of axons of nerve cells and are full of myelin, a whitish fatty material.
White matter is made up primarily of axons of nerve cells and are full of myelin, a whitish fatty material.

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Discussion Comments


My husband's family lives in the northeastern United States, and they have several large arbor vitae trees in their yard. The biggest ones are shaped like Christmas trees, and the smaller shrubs are pruned like hedges.

The trees are super thick with leaves, and they stay green year round. His family uses them to block the cold north wind from their house. In the summer, these trees shelter a pretty flower garden from strong breezes.

They have arbor vitae hedges lining their driveway. They look the same as the trees, only shorter.


@seag47 – Coordination, timing, and precision are all vital when dancing, and they are required when playing video games, as well. My cousin and I have battles every weekend, and we are both pretty skilled.

Precision and timing are everything. When you are jumping chasms of a specific length and hitting enemies seconds before they could destroy you, your arbor vitae function has to be excellent.

We have developed our skills, and we both have super fast reflexes. I think our brains have memorized the commands to translate through our arbor vitaes, since we play the same games so often.


Without thinking about it, I rely heavily on my arbor vitae for my job. I am a dance instructor, and I have to tackle some pretty complicated moves. Everything has to be done in time to the music, and if you miss a beat, it can throw the whole routine off.

Since the arbor vitae handles both timing and coordination, I would be lost without it. I'm sure that everyone would, but since my career is so physical, I would suffer even more than an office worker if mine were to malfunction.


I remember learning about the myelin sheath that protects the nerves in the human body back in biology class. Something as important and central to the body's operation as the arbor vitae would definitely need a myelin sheath!

The protective covering always made me think of cables. The soft, black substance that covers telephone wires, printer wires, and almost every other kind of wire leading to an electrical outlet is like a myelin sheath to protect the brain, or arbor vitae, from which it originates.

Since damage to the arbor vitae could have horrible consequences, I'm glad it is well insulated. Coordination and movement are pretty crucial to daily life.

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