Last month, Chief Neurosurgery Resident Dr. Adam Sonabend conducted a white matter workshop for medical students at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Along with Columbia Neurosurgeon Dr. Sameer Sheth, Dr. Sonabend led the students in a study of the anatomy of the brain’s white matter.
“Dr. Sonabend did a great job putting together this workshop,” says Dr. Sheth. “An understanding of white matter pathways is essential for understanding brain function and performing surgical procedures safely. It is, therefore, critical that we impart this knowledge to trainees.”
White matter hasn’t always been a hot topic. In fact, for many years the white matter was pretty much ignored. Instead, the more glamorous grey matter got all the attention.
“Glamorous” hardly sounds like a word that goes with “grey matter.” But consider the grey matter’s place in popular culture. (Really…it does have one.)
Detective Hercule Poirot used his “little grey cells” to solve dozens of murders for Agatha Christie. Bertie Wooster relied on the “grey cells” of his butler Jeeves to remedy silly situations the length and breadth of England. For decades, “grey cells”–or grey matter–meant brain power.
And in many ways, that shorthand is true. Grey matter is made up of the types of cells that help us do our thinking. But underneath the brain’s grey matter is the white matter. This white matter is more than just an inert filling. It connects different parts of the brain and spinal cord, delivering high-speed messages between distant areas. It helps these areas communicate and coordinate effectively. Some call white matter the “subway system” of the brain.
These days, that important system is getting more attention.
And for good reason.
The white matter is even more than a speedy message delivery system. Unlike a subway system, the brain’s white matter is constantly refining and making new connections. Some researchers maintain that while grey matter reaches its peak performance in a person’s twenties, the white matter network doesn’t reach its full potential until middle age.
At the same time, problems in the white matter can be serious indeed. The “amyloid plaques” that happen in diseases like Alzheimer’s are found in the white matter.
Dr. Sonabend’s workshop helped future doctors gain a 21st-century understanding of not the “little grey cells,” but the “little white cells.” The students learned about anatomy of the white matter, because we now know that the white matter…matters.
Special thanks to Columbia Neurosurgery Resident Hannah Goldstein for helping to organize and set up this lab.
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