Smoking may cause white scars on the brain

Summary: Smoking causes white matter scarring in the brain, and the effects do more harm than previously believed.

Source: NTNU

It’s quite possible that you are one of those people with white spots on the brain. Healthy people aren’t spared them, but sick individuals may be more vulnerable. If you smoke, the risk increases even more..

You probably don’t notice them too much unless your doctor has you get into an MRI machine.

Then you can see them. White spots on the brain. These are the scars in your white matter.

A bit unpleasant to think about, but is there really a problem if they’re so common?

“Both yes and no,” says Asta Håberg, a neuroscience professor at NTNU.

“White spots are the most common age-related finding, but they’re not good for the brain, because it makes it more vulnerable,” says Håberg.

She has just discovered something new.

If you have scarring in the white matter in the brain, it not surprisingly affects the area where the scar is. What Håberg and her colleagues found was that completely different parts of the brain are also affected by the scarring.

Including areas far removed from the scarred tissue.

As with many other things in life, the scars start deep and spread out.

“The effects of the white spots spread across the surface of the brain and increase in volume,” says Håberg.

This finding makes things a little more worrisome. It doesn’t help that scientists don’t really know why the white spots appear at all. Ever since they were discovered, they have been a mystery.

But a few pieces of the puzzle are in place.

“Smoking and high blood pressure increase the risk,” says Håberg.

Fortunately, there’s been a shift in this habit. Fewer young people now take up smoking. Among individuals who started when they were young, some are obviously still caught in tobacco’s grip. Statistics Norway data shows that twelve percent of Norway’s population smoked in 2018.

This shows a brain scan from the study
The effects of the white spots increase in volume as they spread across the surface of the brain. Here marked in blue. The image is credited to NTNU.

Smoking is more prevalent among people in the 65-74 age group than among those who are 49 years old or younger.

The risk of numerous different brain diseases — such as dementia or stroke — increases with age.

“Keeping your brain as healthy as possible can reduce the negative effects of other brain diseases. Regular health advice regarding high blood pressure and not smoking are both good for the body and the brain,” says Håberg.

About this neuroscience research article

Media Contacts:
Asta Håberg – NTNU
Image Source:
The image is credited to NTNU.

Original Research: Open access
“The effect of white matter hyperintensities on regional brain volumes and white matter microstructure, a population-based study in HUNT”. Torgil Riise Vangberg, Live Eikenes, Asta K. Håberg.
NeuroImage doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116158.


The effect of white matter hyperintensities on regional brain volumes and white matter microstructure, a population-based study in HUNT

Even though age-related white matter hyperintensities (WMH) begin to emerge in middle age, their effect on brain micro- and macrostructure in this age group is not fully elucidated. We have examined how presence of WMH and load of WMH affect regional brain volumes and microstructure in a validated, representative general population sample of 873 individuals between 50 and 66 years. Presence of WMH was determined as Fazakas grade ≥1. WMH load was WMH volume from manual tracing of WMHs divided on intracranial volume. The impact of age appropriate WMH (Fazakas grade 1) on the brain was also investigated. Major novel findings were that even the age appropriate WMH group had widespread macro- and microstructural changes in gray and white matter, showing that the mere presence of WMH, not just WMH load is an important clinical indicator of brain health. With increasing WMH load, structural changes spread centrifugally. Further, we found three major patterns of FA and MD changes related to increasing WMH load, demonstrating a heterogeneous effect on white matter microstructure, where distinct patterns were found in the proximity of the lesions, in deep white matter and in white matter near the cortex. This study also raises several questions about the onset of WMH related pathology, in particular, whether some of the aberrant brain structural and microstructural findings are present before the emergence of WMH. We also found, similar to other studies, that WMH risk factors had low explanatory power for WMH, making it unclear which factors lead to WMH.

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  1. Oh yes I smoke and for thirty five days during concussion did not crave or want a cigarette. Also use to wear glasses when I went back to work no longer needed glasses to read invoices. Effected my optic nerve in my left eye see perfect my right went worse at distance.

  2. I wish this article had clarified what was being smoked—tobacco only? What about cannabis?

  3. This you might find interesting I’ve had epilepsy since little my family dr referred me to a neurologist since no seizures for forty years might not need medication. He did a blood test MRI and an ekg. I was on phenobarbital and dilentin. To stop I was to start taking keppra and gradually decrease my old medication and increase keppra then stop my old medication and then slowly wean off keppra all was fine until I had a concussion less than a month later needless to say I was bad thought it was side effects of medication till I crashed and burned . Your brain shuts you down worst case like alzheimers lights movement balance emotions even sense of smell and exhaustion. Couldn’t keep track of medication to juggle one and the other so off the keppra just the old ones easier to manage when you dont even know what day it is. Anyways after just over two months one day I felt better than good remembered nothing had been paid in months got on my computer got out my debit card to pay online. Now my while life I would go online and have to key in my card three times at least never could remember it and would leave it on my desk go to work without it. Anyways i looked at it and keyed it in put in password first time thought i got lucky after paying all bills got off of computer and realized card number was still stuck in my head looked at the rest of identification it all stuck. Then felt tired exhausted went back to sleep over the next to weeks on and off my head kept doing this license plates dates but then I’d crash again but information when it would race would stay. Well after four months was back to work but now my head had a compulsion to want to do puzzles in my head and every night non stop research and was understanding it all medical and scientific stuff. I would be doing it all night and think a half hour went by the sound of birds chirping would snap me out of it five hours had gone by. This racing in my head went on for over two years I now have all this information in my head and solved so many things. Like after I was back to work resumed back on keppra bad side effects in the joints and muscles was brutal so learned the whole immune system gut bacteria and put it together to change the diversity of my gut bacteria that interacts with medication to offset side effects it worked. Nice part is my horrible sweet tooth dissapeared couldn’t care less about it. Crazy part is I know how that happens. Now a few months ago it finally stopped racing. It seems so quiet in my head. It was like I had two neuro pathways going one normal and one on a high speed hyway. I have a theory about that also. Anyways before I couldn’t care about knowing things now I analyze things put puzzles of information together but I now am at rest not overwhelmed to absorb not stop information and not stop until I draw a conclusion that fit a puzzle. People look at me weird but now I dont say much to people because when they ask you something medical or scientific it would sound like I swallowed a dictionary so I tend to be quiet. Nice thing is when I changed my diet to a combination organic and regular food my grandson who lives with us had to eat a lot of my organic food and was educating him well for the past few years for the first time in his life he has no more eczema must of done something accidentally with his bacteria to balance horrmones that effect layers of skin. Wish I could figure it out but everyone strains of bacteria is unique so what works for one wont work in same way for another. My head still turns on and off like a light bulb but now it’s not constant. It’s nice to think so clearly but there are alot of things I know that wish I didnt. It was a lot nicer being naive about things. The concussion changed how I think and reason and how things work.

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