White Matter Matters Most When It Comes To Brain Health, New Study Finds

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Plastic Model of a Brain Repeated on a Minimal Background

Image by Audrey Shtecinjo / Stocksy

Does size really matter? Look, it's not our job to decide that for you. But when it comes to brain health, we assure you, it does not. And new research from Michigan State University explains why. 

A study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex discovered that white matter is a better indicator of cognitive decline than brain size. Meaning, doctors might be able to diagnose severe memory-related disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, much earlier than before. 

After analyzing two different brain scans—one of hippocampal size and one of white matter—researchers found that limbic white matter connectivity was more helpful in predicting brain disorders. The study showed people with less white matter were more likely to have trouble with memory and learning, regardless of hippocampus size. 

Now, a brief neurology lesson. Limbic white matter is a circuitry system that connects the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. And the hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for memories and learning. 

Previous research said having a larger hippocampus does not always ensure better memory in older adults. This recent study confirms that and proves it's what's on the inside that counts. 

When looking for physical markers of cognitive decline, lead author of the study Andrew Bender, Ph.D., said, "Our findings highlight the need to measure...how well [the hippocampus] is connected to the rest of the brain."

According to Bender, focusing attention on several regions of the brain rather than any single region is important when studying age-related changes in learning and memory. Two to three years from now, Bender and his team plan to take new brain scans of the same participants to analyze neurological changes over time. 

"By following people over time," he said, "we can see if there is actually change in older adults' brain structure, and whether that is linked with observable declines in learning and memory."

Along with making earlier diagnoses possible, this information can prevent people from being misdiagnosed. Especially since the hippocampus can naturally shrink with age or as a result of taking birth control pills.

Want to improve your brain health? Try this neurologist's 10-day reset for better health or 10 ways to maintain your brain health as you age.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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