What Is White Matter Disease?

White matter disease can cause a loss of signal conduction between nerves, which can lead to a lack of balance, headaches and other issues.
Medical imaging can easily detect white matter disease, but more tests are needed to determine whether it is progressive.
Some genetic diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, can cause the breakdown of white matter.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 22 October 2014
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White matter disease is a condition involving the white matter, which is the material found between neurons in the brain and spinal cord. White matter includes nerve fibers that facilitate communication, along with myelin, a fatty sheath that covers the nerves. A broad family of conditions fall under the umbrella of white matter disease and they are of varying degrees of severity and concern. A neurologist can provide a patient with more specific information about a particular diagnosis.

Damage to the white matter can cause a variety of problems, depending on the location of the damage. A common problem is loss of signal conduction between the nerves. This can lead to things like loss of muscle tone, lack of coordination, difficulty balancing, and poor muscle control. People can also develop symptoms like headaches, behavioral changes, and difficulty forming new memories.

Some types of this disease are degenerative, leading to increasing damage over time. In other cases, the damage is the result of a single event and the degeneration will not progress any further. The disease is readily apparent on medical imaging studies, but additional testing is needed to learn more about why it is happening and whether or not it is progressive in nature. Follow up scans can be used to monitor the progress of the disease and to identify any worrying or sudden changes that might require a change in the course of treatment.

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Sometimes, damage to the white matter is caused by genetic variations. Some people don't produce enough myelin, break the substance down more quickly than they should, or have metabolic problems that lead to white matter disease. Autoimmune diseases can also contribute to breakdowns of white matter, as in the case of a demyelinating disease like multiple sclerosis. Likewise, head injuries, strokes, and infections can all lead to white matter disease.

Once a patient is diagnosed with this condition and additional tests are performed to determine why the white matter is being damaged, a doctor can start to develop treatment recommendations. In some cases, no treatment may be necessary, as the damage may have been a one-time occurrence. Other patients may need to take medications, pursue physical therapy, and take other steps to manage degenerative diseases. It is also important to make plans for the future, so that patients who will be losing brain function and muscle control can prepare ahead of time for eventualities that will occur as the disease progresses.

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Discuss this Article

anon963833
Post 9

I was diagnosed with white matter lesions. I had hypertension and the medication was making me dizzy so I asked my doctor to have me do MRI. The result came back and I was devastated. The lesions did not extend to the spine so that was a little comforting, but only a little. I was tested again about eight months later and no changes in the lesions were found.

I recently had a mild stroke and again MRI did not show changes, except the area of the brain affected by the stroke. I did some research on Google and I found an article about sleep apnea and white matter lesions and it mentioned that the lesions can be reversible with the use of a CPAP, which I am using.

anon342350
Post 7

My father has it. I pray for him. It's sad to see because he is a vegetable. He can feed himself, sort of. He can barely speak, but when he does, it's awesome! I cherish the moments he seems to be 'in the present'. I'm sad for my dad, but so blessed to have him in my life! I pray the medical community finds better treatment options and a cure for this awful disease!

anon341913
Post 6

I have advanced white matter disease. My brain was healed by reading the Bible. If you look on my MRI, I should be a vegetable. I still have short term memory problems and confusion once in a while, but I am able to work as an RN. The Word of God is life to our flesh and health to our soul.

anon299527
Post 5

Doctors have suspected I have White Matter Disease via MRI. After seven years (lucky 7), I hope to finally receive a firm diagnosis that everyone can agree with. My 'first clue' was the difficulty just to communicate in basic sentences. It is sad. Simply put.

anon281846
Post 4

There are ways to differentially diagnose MS and WMD on MRIs, except that most doctors - radiologists on down - do not take the time to acquaint themselves with those differences and end up causing a lot of grief in either case.

dented
Post 3

You hear a bit about this type of disorder without really knowing it. Multiple Sclerosis is a disease where the white matter becomes damaged, for instance.

balrama
Post 2

I went school with someone that suffered from a type of white brain matter disease. Her first clue was that she regressed mentally to a child-like state and started naming colors of what she saw while in the car. I believe they were able to stabilize the condition, however. Sad stuff though.

TheCloser
Post 1

My brother had a friend in high school with white matter disease, it was really sad. The friend was actually pretty close with a lot of my family, so we learned a lot about the disease through him.

Apparently, many of the diseases that fall under this category are hereditary. Vanishing white matter disease, for instance, can be passed down from family member to family member.

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