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What makes up the gray and the white matter in the central nervous system?

The central nervous system (CNS) contains two main types of tissue: gray matter and white matter. Gray matter is made up of neuron cell bodies, dendrites, unmyelinated axons, glial cells, and capillaries. In contrast, white matter contains myelinated axons and some glial cells. The differing composition of these two tissue types leads to their distinct appearance and specialized functions within the CNS. In this article, we will explore the key components and roles of gray and white matter in the brain and spinal cord.

Gray Matter

Gray matter gets its distinctive grayish color from the neuronal cell bodies and dendrites that it contains. It is found in clusters within the CNS called nuclei or masses, which are present in both the brain and spinal cord. Let’s take a closer look at the main elements of gray matter:

Neuron Cell Bodies

The cell bodies, or soma, of neurons make up a significant portion of gray matter. These contain the cell nucleus and most of the metabolic machinery of the neuron. By containing the soma, gray matter supports key neuronal functions like synthesizing proteins, processing inputs, and initiating action potentials.


Dendrites are tree-like extensions of the neuron cell body which receive and integrate signals from other neurons. The dendritic arbors found in gray matter provide neurons with an enlarged surface area to connect with the axons of other neurons. This allows efficient transmission of signals within networks of neurons.

Unmyelinated Axons

While white matter contains myelinated axons covered by myelin sheaths, gray matter contains numerous unmyelinated axon segments. These are the terminal points of axons which form synapses with other neurons. Locating the unmyelinated axon terminals within gray matter allows efficient transmission of signals between connecting neurons.

Glial Cells

In addition to neurons, glial cells are abundant in gray matter. The main types found are astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and microglia. Glial cells support neuronal function by supplying nutrients, maintaining extracellular ion balance, repairing neural tissue, and clearing debris. High glial densities in gray matter help maintain the optimal cellular environment needed for neuronal signaling.


There is an extensive network of capillaries perfusing gray matter to supply oxygen and nutrients to active neurons. The high metabolic demands of gray matter require a robust blood supply. This allows nuclei within gray matter to play central roles in processing and transmitting neural signals.

White Matter

In contrast to gray matter, white matter has a whitish coloration due to the lipid-rich myelin that insulates its axons. It contains bundles of myelinated axons as well as some glial cells. Let’s explore the composition of white matter further:

Myelinated Axons

Myelinated axons are a major component of white matter and give it its light color. Myelin is produced by oligodendrocytes and wrapped in segments along the length of axons. This acts as an insulating layer that increases the speed and efficiency of action potential conduction along axons. Bundles of myelinated axons make up the white matter tracts that connect different gray matter regions.

Glial Cells

While gray matter contains more neuron cell bodies, white matter contains a higher density of glial cells like oligodendrocytes and astrocytes. Oligodendrocytes produce the myelin around axons, while astrocytes support and nourish the neurons and their connections. Microglia are also present to repair damage and remove pathogens and cell debris.

Differences in Composition

The differing composition of gray and white matter suits their distinct roles within the CNS. Here are some of the key differences:

Tissue Type Gray Matter White Matter
Main Components Neuron cell bodies, dendrites, unmyelinated axons, glial cells, capillaries Myelinated axons, oligodendrocytes, astrocytes
Appearance Grayish color from neuronal cell bodies White color from myelin
Location Clusters called nuclei or masses within the CNS Bundles of tracts connecting gray matter regions
Function Information processing, signal integration Rapid transmission of signals between regions

Distribution in the CNS

Gray and white matter have distinct distribution patterns within the brain and spinal cord.

Gray Matter in the Brain

In the brain, gray matter is found in the outer layer known as the cerebral cortex, as well as in structures like the thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and brainstem nuclei. The cerebral cortex contains about half the gray matter in the brain. It has a highly folded surface morphology that provides an extensive area for information processing and cognition. Other gray matter clusters play roles in relaying signals, regulating physiology, and controlling movement.

White Matter in the Brain

White matter in the brain lies beneath the gray matter cortex and between subcortical gray matter structures. Major white matter tracts include the corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s two hemispheres, and projection, association, and commissural fiber bundles that connect and integrate signals between different cortical and subcortical regions.

Gray Matter in the Spinal Cord

In the spinal cord, gray matter is found within an inner H-shaped region. It forms the dorsal, ventral, and lateral horns which contain soma and dendrites involved in processing sensory, motor, and autonomic signals. Interneurons in the gray matter integrate signals before sending output to the brain and periphery.

White Matter in the Spinal Cord

Spinal cord white matter surrounds the inner gray matter and consists mainly of ascending and descending myelinated axon tracts. These include sensory pathways like the dorsal column medial lemniscus tract and motor pathways like the lateral corticospinal tract. These allow rapid conduction along the length of the spinal cord between the brain and body.

Changes with Age

The balance and volume of gray and white matter change dynamically across the human lifespan.

Gray Matter Changes

– Gray matter volume peaks in adolescence as unused synapses are pruned. It declines with age, with the cortex thinning progressively from adulthood onward.

– Loss of gray matter with age may be linked to reduced plasticity and cognitive decline. However, some cortical thinning may represent adaptive processes.

White Matter Changes

– White matter volume increases through childhood and adolescence as myelination continues. It peaks in middle age.

– In older age, white matter integrity declines, including changes like reduced myelination and damaged axons. However, some new myelination can occur with learning new skills.

– Loss of white matter with age is associated with slower cognitive processing and reduced networking between brain regions.

Clinical Relevance

Differences in the amount and integrity of gray and white matter have clinical relevance in various neurological and psychiatric disorders:

– **Multiple sclerosis:** An autoimmune disease where myelin is damaged, leading to reduced white matter integrity.

– **Alzheimer’s disease:** Associated with significant cortical gray matter atrophy and white matter degradation.

– **Schizophrenia:**Linked to abnormally low gray matter volume in certain brain regions.

– **Major depressive disorder:** Associated with decreased gray matter density and volume.

– **Traumatic brain injury:** Can damage axons in white matter tracts.

Understanding the makeup and function of gray and white matter provides insight into many CNS disorders. Continued study of these tissues is critical for developing treatments.


In summary, gray matter and white matter are the two main tissue types that make up the central nervous system. Gray matter consists predominantly of neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, unmyelinated axons, and glia. Its grayish appearance comes from the neuron somas. In contrast, white matter contains mostly myelinated axons and glia. It has a whitish color due to myelin. The different composition of these tissues underlies their specialized roles, with gray matter involved in signal processing and integration and white matter transmitting signals rapidly between distant regions. The balance between gray matter and white matter changes over the lifespan and has clinical relevance in many neurological conditions. Understanding the makeup and function of these two essential CNS tissues sheds light on the workings of the healthy and diseased brain and spinal cord.