AskDefine | Define myelin

Dictionary Definition

myelin n : a white fatty substance that forms a medullary sheath around the axis cylinder of some nerve fibers [syn: myeline, medulla]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a white, fatty material, composed of lipids and lipoproteins, that surrounds the axons of nerves

Extensive Definition

Myelin is an electrically-insulating dielectric phospholipid layer that surrounds only the axons of many neurons. It is an outgrowth glial cell: Schwann cells supply the myelin for peripheral neurons, whereas oligodendrocytes supply it to those of the central nervous system. Myelin is considered a defining characteristic of the (gnathostome) vertebrates, but it has also arisen by parallel evolution in some invertebrates. Myelin was discovered in 1878 by Louis-Antoine Ranvier.

Composition of myelin

Myelin made by different cell types varies in chemical composition and configuration, but performs the same insulating function. Myelinated axons are white in appearance, hence the "white matter" of the brain.
Myelin is composed of about 80% lipid fat and about 20% protein. Some of the proteins that make up myelin are Myelin basic protein (MBP), Myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein (MOG), and Proteolipid protein (PLP). Myelin is made up primarily of a glycolipid called galactocerebroside. The intertwining of the hydrocarbon chains of sphingomyelin serve to strengthen the myelin sheath.

Function of myelin layer

The main consequence of a myelin layer (or sheath) is an increase in the speed at which impulses propagate along the myelinated fiber. Along unmyelinated fibers, impulses move continuously as waves, but, in myelinated fibers, they hop or "propagate by saltation." Myelin increases resistance across the cell membrane by a factor of 5,000 and decreases capacitance by a factor of 50. Myelination also helps prevent the electrical current from leaving the axon. When a peripheral fiber is severed, the myelin sheath provides a track along which regrowth can occur. Unmyelinated fibers and myelinated axons of the mammalian central nervous system do not regenerate.

Demyelination and Dysmyelination

Demyelination is the act of demyelinating, or the loss of the myelin sheath insulating the nerves, and is the hallmark of some neurodegenerative autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, transverse myelitis, Alexander's disease, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, Guillain-Barré Syndrome and central pontine myelinosis. Sufferers of pernicious anaemia can also suffer nerve damage if the condition is not diagnosed quickly. Sub-acute combined degeneration of the cord secondary to pernicious anaemia can lead to anything from slight peripheral nerve damage to severe damage to the central nervous system affecting speech, balance and cognitive awareness. When myelin degrades, conduction of signals along the nerve can be impaired or lost and the nerve eventually withers.
The immune system may play a role in demyelination associated with such diseases, including inflammation causing demyelination by overproduction of cytokines via upregulation of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) or interferon.
Heavy metal poisoning may also lead to demyelination. Even very small amounts of mercury have been shown to be particularly destructive to nerve sheaths.
Research to repair damaged myelin sheaths is ongoing. Techniques include surgically implanting oligodendrocyte precursor cells in the central nervous system and inducing myelin repair with certain antibodies. While there have been some encouraging results in mice (via stem cell implant), it is still unknown whether this technique can be effective in humans.
Dysmyelination on the other hand is different from the lesions producing process of active demyelination and is characterized by defective structure and function of myelin sheaths. Such defective sheaths often arise from genetic mutations affecting the biosynthesis and formation of myelin. Examples of human diseases where dysmyelination has been implicated include leukodystrophies (Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, Canavan disease, Phenylketonuria) and schizophrenia.

Symptoms of Demyelination

Demyelination destruction or loss of the myelin sheath typically results in diverse symptoms. The symptoms are determined by the functions normally contributed by the affected neurons.
Damage to the myelin sheath disrupts signals between the brain and other parts of the body producing a range of symptoms. Symptoms are often heterogeneous — dependent on pathophysiology of demyelination — differing from patient to patient, and have different presentations upon clinical observation and in laboratory studies.
  • Blurriness in the central visual field that affects only one eye; may be accompanied by pain upon eye movement
  • Double vision
  • Odd sensation in legs, arms, chest, or face, such as tingling or numbness (neuropathy)
  • Weakness of arms or legs
  • Cognitive disruption including speech impairment, memory loss
  • Heat sensitivity (symptoms worsen, reappear upon exposure to heat such as a hot shower)
  • Loss of dexterity
  • Difficulty coordinating movement or balance disorder
  • Difficulty controlling bowel movements or urination
  • Fatigue

See also


  • Krämer-Albers EM, Gehrig-Burger K, Thiele C, Trotter J, Nave KA. (2006 Nov 8). "Perturbed interactions of mutant proteolipid protein/DM20 with cholesterol and lipid rafts in oligodendroglia: implications for dysmyelination in spastic paraplegia". J Neurosci. 26(45):11743-52.PMID: 17093095
  • Matalon R, Michals-Matalon K, Surendran S, Tyring SK. (2006). "Canavan disease: studies on the knockout mouse". Adv Exp Med Biol.; 576:77-93.PMID: 16802706
  • Tkachev D, Mimmack ML, Huffaker SJ, Ryan M, Bahn S. (2007 Aug). "Further evidence for altered myelin biosynthesis and glutamatergic dysfunction in schizophrenia". Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 10(4):557-63.PMID: 17291371

Also see

Relating to diabetes

  • Vlassara H, Brownlee M, Cerami A. (1985 Jun); "Recognition and uptake of human diabetic peripheral nerve myelin by macrophages." Diabetes. 34(6):553-7. PMID: 4007282
  • Thornalley PJ. (2002); "Glycation in diabetic neuropathy: characteristics, consequences, causes, and therapeutic options." Int Rev Neurobiol. 50:37-57. PMID: 12198817

Relating to myelin's geometry, and its fibre-optic potentiality

  • Donaldson, H.H. & Hoke, G.W. (1905). "The areas of the axis cylinder and medullary sheath as seen in cross sections of the spinal nerves of vertebrates". Journal of Comparative Neurology. 15, 1-   — [Early evidence of approximately-constant ratio of myelin-thickness to axon diameter].
  • Duncan, D. (1934). "A relation between axone diameter and myelination determined by measurement of myelinated spinal root fibres". Journal of Comparative Neurology. 60, 437-471. — [another historic paper on the myelin/axon ratio].
  • Rushton, W.A.H. (1951). "A theory of the effects of fibre size in medullated nerve". J.Physiology, 115, 101-122. [Calculation of best geometry for saltatory conduction.]
  • Traill, R.R. (1977/1980/2006) Toward a theoretical explanation of electro-chemical interaction in memory-use. Monograph #24, Cybernetics Department, Brunel University., or as Part B of Thesis. — [showing that other extra signal-modes are possible for such "coaxials", which could make myelin even more important].
  • Traill, R.R. (1988). "The case that mammalian intelligence is based on sub-molecular memory-coding and fibre-optic capabilities of myelinated nerve axons". Speculations in Science and Technology. 11(3), 173-181.
  • Traill, R.R. (2005). Strange regularities in the geometry of myelin nerve-insulation — a possible single cause. Ondwelle: Melbourne — or in Gen.Sci.J. — [Offers explanation for the myelin/axon ratio, and other details].
  •     optic nerve, physiology subsection; — [applies some of this theory].
myelin in Catalan: Mielina
myelin in German: Myelin
myelin in Spanish: Mielina
myelin in Basque: Mielina
myelin in French: Myéline
myelin in Ido: Myelino
myelin in Indonesian: Selubung Mielin
myelin in Icelandic: Mýlisslíður
myelin in Italian: Guaina mielinica
myelin in Hebrew: מיאלין
myelin in Dutch: Myeline
myelin in Japanese: 髄鞘
myelin in Norwegian: Myelin
myelin in Polish: Otoczka mielinowa
myelin in Portuguese: Mielina
myelin in Russian: Миелин
myelin in Finnish: Myeliini
myelin in Swedish: Myelin
myelin in Chinese: 髓鞘
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