White matter disease symptoms

Updated February 21, 2017

The brain is made up of grey matter and white matter. White matter is where the hardware connects to carry messages to the areas of the brain. The brain is about 60 per cent white matter. If there is a stroke or hardening of the arteries, which interrupts the flow of blood to the brain, it causes the lesions or damage to the white matter. There are various symptoms of white matter disease (known as leukodystrophy). But initially, if there's limited damage, no symptoms may appear and the disease only shows on tests.


The use of an MRI is the easiest way to diagnose white matter disease. One of the most common forms of the disease is multiple sclerosis. Most of the time, the average age for the onset of MS is the 20s for females and the 30s for men.

Visual Disturbance

Symptoms vary, depending on the cause and location of the white matter disease. In MS, one of the most prevalent symptoms is visual disturbance. The destruction of the myelin causes the visual message interruption.


There may be a small reduction of strength or slight weakness in the hands and legs. Sometimes the disease causes difficulty with concentration. A lack of coordination may also occur. If the white matter disease comes from progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy caused by AIDS, these subtle changes are often viewed as the result of fatigue or medication.

Other Symptoms

People with white matter disease show changes in their speech, particularly as the disease progresses. They may also have headaches and seizures if there is damage to specific areas.


Encephalomyelitis causes white matter disease. Those with this cause show persistent exhaustion, with the symptoms made worse if the patient exercises. There may be muscle twitching, interference with vision, numbness, poor circulation and increased sensitivities to light, chemicals and foods. It's not uncommon for someone with white matter disease to have headaches and flu-like symptoms.


Those with damage to the white matter may have a difficult time choosing words, speaking, orienting to surroundings and remembering things. Concentration is often affected, as are sleep patterns and moods.

Mental, Physical Changes

Normally, those with leukodystrophy show a decline in their ability to function mentally and physically. Hearing is affected and behaviour changes, but the most marked symptom is a very gradual change in both the mental and physical aspects of the individual. When found in the early phases, there are often ways to treat the condition.

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