Missing white matter - why is it important?

James Cantor PhD from CAMH made the discovery of missing white matters in some of his research subjects, which i discussed recently. It is a brilliant discovery, since virtually nobody looks for the expected amount of this cabling matter in fMRI images.

White matter denotes the area filled mostly with the dendrites and the axons of neurons, while the lump with the nucleus sits in the gray matter. Electrical impulses travel along those tentacles, a bit faster on those with a myelin sheath than along those without. Hence calling it cabling matter is quite correct. Without any cabling matter, our brains simply wouldn't work. But what are the effects if we are missing a bit here and there?

Everybody knows and loves cars. Imagine you are driving in winter time on an icy road. Something happens and you have to break. The foot presses onto a pedal, hydraulic pressure increases by that action and via brake lines is transferred to the wheels. Here, cylinders are expanding and moving brake pads onto disk or drums. Modern cars have ABS. This system has wheel speed sensors, which are connected to a controller by some cabling matters. Another set of cabling goes to valves. If everything works fine, this system will prevent the wheels from locking; and even on an icy road one maintains full control over the vehicle.

What we have here is a control system (the ABS) on top of another one (human - pedal - brake lines - brakes). Even newer cars have traction control and automatic brakes. The latter are intended to avoid rear-end collisions. Those are control systems on top of the other two. One can think of them as a hierarchy of control systems.

The brain is a more advanced version of that. Not only do we have neurons in our brains, we also have endocrine glands. In addition to that, our brain is getting rewired all the time. Our reflexes are like the simple brake system in cars, and everything else sits on top of it. Like the ABS in cars, those higher brain functions work like moderators.

Pretty often, questions with respect to mental illnesses are formulated as "What causes symptome X?" This type of questions shows the traces of the medical heritage, where viruses cause illnesses like influenza. Understanding the brain as a hierarchy of control circuits, one should rather ask "why aren't the emotions sufficiently moderated in bipolar disorders?"

I wonder, if missing white matter is responsible for that. The missing white matter discovery by James Cantor seems to be more important than commonly known. To my layman's eyes some psychological disorders look like missing some kind of moderation at some level. Often one reads the phrase "loss of control", which is similar to a car with a broken ABS on an icy road. If missing white matter were responsible, then we could find a treatment that rebuilds it. Missing white matter also rises the question, what prevented its growth in the first place? Already we suspect that children placed under lot of duress and stress during their childhood show long lasting mental damages later in life. It seems like higher hormonal values of cortisol and adrenaline might have had an impact. So how can we counter the effects?

If i were a benevolent dictator, i would initiate research programs:

  • one for looking into the missing white matter indicator for certain disorders,
  • another one in laboratories: what prevents and what encourages white matter growth.
Psychotherapy means learning on a rational and emotional level. Often it means to recognise signals of distress or to identify certain situations. Then "supporting thoughts" should aid us to get through the situation. From my personal experience i know that psychotherapy can be demanding and one gets a headache from them. Taking a paracetamol might be ill-advised,  it could harm the establishment of new circuitry. If pharmacy had something else, something that would make white matter growth easier - maybe it could support traditional psychotherapy.


I'm not a psychiatrist, neurobiologist, or psychologist. The views presented here are based on common knowledge, which might not be scientifically correct.
Google on "white matter disorder" gives several results, among other this, where the connection between white matter and bipolar disorder is mentioned.

Addendum 2015-09-09: James Cantor reported the missing white matter, he also reported a lower IQ among his pedophile subjects. Glial cells are considered to be related to IQ, the more glial cells the higher the IQ. Glial cells provide the myelin sheathing of axons, hence contribute to white matter density. It could be as simple as JC has seen a lower IQ on his sMRI pictures.

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