What Are White Matter Lesions?

An MRI of a human head, which can be used to check for white matter lesions.
The human brain.
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  • Written By: Michael Humphrey
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 28 March 2014
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White matter lesions are small areas of dead cells found in parts of the brain that act as connectors. Minor cases are commonly found in the brains of people over 65 years old, apparently a normal result from aging. Age is not the only factor in their development, however. They also appear in some cases of migraine headaches, particularly acute cases, and in the brains of those who have suffered strokes or have progressive neurological diseases — such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s — that cause the brain and central nervous system to degenerate.

While it is not clear that these lesions directly cause brain dysfunction, they are at least good indicators. There is a clear connection between them and a decrease in brain volume, loss of memory and vision, and the ability to understand concepts. Studies have found that Alzheimer’s patients with a greater area of white matter lesions are likely to advance in the disease more rapidly. Larger patches result in slower walking as well.


The brain’s white matter transmits signals between areas of the brain that process information, known as gray matter. It is very common for two distinct parts of the brain to work simultaneously to perform basic functions. When white matter dies, vital communication between two collaborating areas of gray matter slows and can even stop. White matter brain cells are actually pink, but received their name because they become white when set in formaldehyde. The lesions, coincidentally, also appear as patches of white, or a very light gray, on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Scientists are still unclear about all of the exact causes of lesions in the white matter. Medical experts are relatively sure that high blood pressure leads to the demise of white matter in the brain. Cerebral vasculitis, the inflammation of blood vessels in the brain, also appears to be a likely factor, as does hardening of the arteries, especially the aortic artery.

White matter lesions do not heal, though there is a wide variation in how much they advance in people’s brains once they are spotted. There is some evidence that prevention is possible, although studies have shown that some people are genetically more likely to get lesions. Controlling blood pressure appears to have an effect on limiting their development. Eating omega-3 fatty acids, found in many types of fish and some nuts, may also help prevent them.


Discuss this Article

Post 5

A lot of information on WML is in the Rotterdam Scan study.

The only remedy so far, found by Prof.Chandan Sen (Ohio) works with Tocotrienols. Many people studied had the WML shrinking - or develop less rapidly.

Post 4

Is the volumetric analysis helpful for the early diagnosis of dementia?

Post 3

So, it appears that we folks with healthy and normal functioning brains have no white matter lesions, right?

Did I understand that correctly?

We have white matter, but lesions are not present until we reach a certain age or some outside white matter disease source causes this problem in brain tissue.

Is that correct? My grandfather has Alzheimer’s and I'm trying to get a grasp of normal brain function.

Post 2

Is it also common to find that brain injured patients have white matter lesions develop?

My brother-in-law was in a motorcycle accident some years ago, and still has not regained the ability to speak or use the left side of his body. His vision was also affected. We are very blessed to still have him with us!

I was just wondering if perhaps these white matter lesions on the brain were part of the way that his doctors determined what was damaged, and how things are likely to improve for him in the future.

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