White matter hyperintensities, cognitive impairment and dementia: an update

Nat Rev Neurol. 2015 Mar;11(3):157-65. doi: 10.1038/nrneurol.2015.10. Epub 2015 Feb 17.


White matter hyperintensities (WMHs) in the brain are the consequence of cerebral small vessel disease, and can easily be detected on MRI. Over the past three decades, research has shown that the presence and extent of white matter hyperintense signals on MRI are important for clinical outcome, in terms of cognitive and functional impairment. Large, longitudinal population-based and hospital-based studies have confirmed a dose-dependent relationship between WMHs and clinical outcome, and have demonstrated a causal link between large confluent WMHs and dementia and disability. Adequate differential diagnostic assessment and management is of the utmost importance in any patient, but most notably those with incipient cognitive impairment. Novel imaging techniques such as diffusion tensor imaging might reveal subtle damage before it is visible on standard MRI. Even in Alzheimer disease, which is thought to be primarily caused by amyloid, vascular pathology, such as small vessel disease, may be of greater importance than amyloid itself in terms of influencing the disease course, especially in older individuals. Modification of risk factors for small vessel disease could be an important therapeutic goal, although evidence for effective interventions is still lacking. Here, we provide a timely Review on WMHs, including their relationship with cognitive decline and dementia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / complications*
  • Dementia / complications*
  • Humans
  • Leukoencephalopathies / complications*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging