Distribution of axon diameters in cortical white matter: an electron-microscopic study on three human brains and a macaque

Biol Cybern. 2014 Oct;108(5):541-57. doi: 10.1007/s00422-014-0626-2. Epub 2014 Aug 21.


The aim of this study was to obtain information on the axonal diameters of cortico-cortical fibres in the human brain, connecting distant regions of the same hemisphere via the white matter. Samples for electron microscopy were taken from the region of the superior longitudinal fascicle and from the transitional white matter between temporal and frontal lobe where the uncinate and inferior occipitofrontal fascicle merge. We measured the inner diameter of cross sections of myelinated axons. For comparison with data from the literature on the human corpus callosum, we also took samples from that region. For comparison with well-fixed material, we also included samples from corresponding regions of a monkey brain (Macaca mulatta). Fibre diameters in human brains ranged from 0.16 to 9 μm. Distributions of diameters were similar in the three systems of cortico-cortical fibres investigated, both in humans and the monkey, with most of the average values below 1 μm diameter and a small population of much thicker fibres. Within individual human brains, the averages were larger in the superior longitudinal fascicle than in the transitional zone between temporal and frontal lobe. An asymmetry between left and right could be found in one of the human brains, as well as in the monkey brain. A correlation was also found between the thickness of the myelin sheath and the inner axon diameter for axons whose calibre was greater than about 0.6 μm. The results are compared to white matter data in other mammals and are discussed with respect to conduction velocity, brain size, cognition, as well as diffusion weighted imaging studies.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Animals
  • Axons / ultrastructure*
  • Cerebral Cortex / anatomy & histology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / ultrastructure
  • Electron Microscope Tomography*
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Myelin Sheath / ultrastructure*
  • White Matter / cytology*
  • White Matter / ultrastructure