White matter in learning, cognition and psychiatric disorders

Trends Neurosci. 2008 Jul;31(7):361-70. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2008.04.001. Epub 2008 Jun 5.


White matter is the brain region underlying the gray matter cortex, composed of neuronal fibers coated with electrical insulation called myelin. Previously of interest in demyelinating diseases such as multiple sclerosis, myelin is attracting new interest as an unexpected contributor to a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including depression and schizophrenia. This is stimulating research into myelin involvement in normal cognitive function, learning and IQ. Myelination continues for decades in the human brain; it is modifiable by experience, and it affects information processing by regulating the velocity and synchrony of impulse conduction between distant cortical regions. Cell-culture studies have identified molecular mechanisms regulating myelination by electrical activity, and myelin also limits the critical period for learning through inhibitory proteins that suppress axon sprouting and synaptogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Myelin Sheath*