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Medical Students Learn Why White Matter Matters

Neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Sonabend with students in the lab at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons
Neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Sonabend (standing left, in left photo) with students in the lab at
Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons

What color is a brain?

Chances are, you thought “gray.” Gray matter seems to get all the press when talking about brains. It’s also true that gray matter is located on the surface of the brain, so it’s fair to think of a brain as gray (actually pinkish-gray).

Gray matter is terribly important—it includes the areas of the brain that allow us to control our muscles, speak, remember, and process sensory information. But underneath that gray matter is the white matter. White matter consists of supporting cells and a network of nerve fibers coated with a white substance called “myelin.” Myelin insulates these nerve fibers, which allows them to transmit signals quickly. It’s white matter that allows regions of gray matter to talk to each other and work together.

Since white matter connects different parts of the brain and spinal cord, problems in white matter can lead to very serious consequences. For example, patients with Alzheimer disease have a sticky plaque buildup in the white matter of their brains, which block the nerve cells from communicating with each other.

Just before the new year, neurosurgeons from our Brain Tumor Center, Dr. Adam Sonabend and Dr. Sameer Sheth, led a student workshop in studying white matter at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. It was so popular that Dr. Sonabend decided to organize another. Both workshops were open to any interested medical student.

“Studying the brain is key for a medical student,” says Dr. Sonabend. “Books are essential, as are fascinating neuroscience lectures. Nevertheless, for true anatomical understanding, there is no substitute for dissection of the human brain.”

True to Dr. Sonabend’s word, the workshop had 12 full brains available for dissection. Each brain was prepared using a special technique that makes the white matter easy to define and dissect.

In these labs, students were mentored by neurosurgery residents who, in turn, do their own research and work closely with faculty. It is precisely this research that has led to a greater understanding of the possible role white matter anomalies likely play in Alzheimer disease and other neurological disorders.

Learn more about Dr. Sonabend at his bio page here.

Learn more about Dr. Sheth at his bio page here.

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