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Cerebellar Disorders


Hector A. Gonzalez-Usigli

, MD, HE UMAE Centro Médico Nacional de Occidente

Reviewed/Revised Feb 2022 | Modified Sep 2022
Topic Resources

Cerebellar disorders have numerous causes, including congenital malformations, hereditary ataxias, and acquired conditions. Symptoms vary with the cause but typically include ataxia (impaired muscle coordination). Diagnosis is clinical and often by imaging and sometimes genetic testing. Treatment is usually supportive unless the cause is acquired and reversible.

The cerebellum has 3 parts:

  • Archicerebellum (vestibulocerebellum): It includes the flocculonodular lobe, which is located in the medial zone. The archicerebellum helps maintain equilibrium and coordinate eye, head, and neck movements; it is closely interconnected with the vestibular nuclei.

  • Midline vermis (paleocerebellum): It helps coordinate trunk and leg movements. Vermis lesions result in abnormalities of stance and gait.

  • Lateral hemispheres (neocerebellum): They control quick and finely coordinated limb movements, predominantly of the arms and hands.

There is growing consensus that in addition to coordination, the cerebellum controls some aspects of memory, learning, and cognition.

Ataxia is the archetypal sign of cerebellar dysfunction, but many other motor abnormalities may occur (see table Signs of Cerebellar Disorders Signs of Cerebellar Disorders Signs of Cerebellar Disorders ).


Etiology of Cerebellar Disorders

The most common cause of cerebellar disorders is

  • Alcoholic cerebellar degeneration

Congenital malformations

Such malformations are almost always sporadic, often occurring as part of complex malformation syndromes (eg, Dandy-Walker malformation Etiology Hydrocephalus is accumulation of excessive amounts of cerebrospinal fluid, causing cerebral ventricular enlargement and/or increased intracranial pressure. Manifestations can include enlarged... read more Etiology ) that affect other parts of the central nervous system (CNS).

Malformations manifest early in life and are nonprogressive. Manifestations vary markedly depending on the structures involved; ataxia is usually present.

Hereditary ataxias

Hereditary ataxias may be autosomal recessive or autosomal dominant. Autosomal recessive ataxias include Friedreich ataxia (the most prevalent), ataxia-telangiectasia, abetalipoproteinemia, ataxia with isolated vitamin E deficiency, and cerebrotendinous xanthomatosis.

Friedreich ataxia results from a gene mutation causing abnormal repetition of the DNA sequence GAA in the FXN gene on the long arm of chromosome 9; the FXN gene codes for the mitochondrial protein frataxin. The GAA sequence is repeated 5 to 38 times within the FXN gene in people who do not have Friedreich ataxia; however, in people with Friedreich ataxia, the GAA sequence may be repeated 70 to > 1000 times (1 Etiology references Cerebellar disorders have numerous causes, including congenital malformations, hereditary ataxias, and acquired conditions. Symptoms vary with the cause but typically include ataxia (impaired... read more , 2 Etiology references Cerebellar disorders have numerous causes, including congenital malformations, hereditary ataxias, and acquired conditions. Symptoms vary with the cause but typically include ataxia (impaired... read more ). Inheritance is autosomal recessive. Decreased frataxin levels lead to mitochondrial iron overload and impaired mitochondrial function.

In Friedreich ataxia, gait unsteadiness begins between ages 5 and 15; it is followed by upper-extremity ataxia, dysarthria, and paresis, particularly of the lower extremities. Mental function often declines. Tremor, if present, is slight. Reflexes and vibration and position senses are lost. Talipes equinovarus (clubfoot), scoliosis, and progressive cardiomyopathy are common. By their late 20s, patients may be confined to a wheelchair. Death, often due to arrhythmia or heart failure, usually occurs by middle age.

Spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs) are the main autosomal dominant ataxias. Classification of these ataxias has been revised many times recently as knowledge about genetics increases. Currently, at least 44 different gene loci are recognized; about 10 involve expanded DNA sequence repeats. Some involve a repetition of the DNA sequence CAG that codes for the amino acid glutamine, similar to that in Huntington disease.

Manifestations of SCAs vary. Some of the most common SCAs affect multiple areas in the central and peripheral nervous systems; neuropathy, pyramidal signs, and restless leg syndrome Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) and Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD) and restless legs syndrome (RLS) are characterized by abnormal motions of and, for RLS, usually sensations in the lower or upper extremities, which may... read more , as well as ataxia, are common. Some SCAs usually cause only cerebellar ataxia.

Acquired conditions

Acquired ataxias may result from nonhereditary neurodegenerative disorders (eg, multiple system atrophy Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) Multiple system atrophy is a relentlessly progressive neurodegenerative disorder causing pyramidal, cerebellar, and autonomic dysfunction. It includes 3 disorders previously thought to be distinct... read more ), systemic disorders, multiple sclerosis Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Multiple sclerosis (MS) is characterized by disseminated patches of demyelination in the brain and spinal cord. Common symptoms include visual and oculomotor abnormalities, paresthesias, weakness... read more Multiple Sclerosis (MS) , cerebellar strokes, repeated traumatic brain injury Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is physical injury to brain tissue that temporarily or permanently impairs brain function. Diagnosis is suspected clinically and confirmed by imaging (primarily... read more Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) , or toxin exposure, or they may be idiopathic. Systemic disorders include alcoholism Alcohol Toxicity and Withdrawal Alcohol (ethanol) is a central nervous system depressant. Large amounts consumed rapidly can cause respiratory depression, coma, and death. Large amounts chronically consumed damage the liver... read more (alcoholic cerebellar degeneration), thiamin deficiency, celiac disease Celiac Disease Celiac disease is an immunologically mediated disease in genetically susceptible people caused by intolerance to gluten, resulting in mucosal inflammation and villous atrophy, which causes malabsorption... read more Celiac Disease , heatstroke Heatstroke Heatstroke is hyperthermia accompanied by a systemic inflammatory response causing multiple organ dysfunction that may result in death. Symptoms include temperature > 40° C and altered mental... read more , hypothyroidism Hypothyroidism Hypothyroidism is thyroid hormone deficiency. Symptoms include cold intolerance, fatigue, and weight gain. Signs may include a typical facial appearance, hoarse slow speech, and dry skin. Diagnosis... read more Hypothyroidism , and vitamin E deficiency Vitamin E Deficiency Dietary vitamin E deficiency is common in countries with high rates of food insecurity; deficiency among adults in other countries is uncommon and usually due to fat malabsorption. The main... read more .

Toxins that can cause cerebellar dysfunction include carbon monoxide Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning causes acute symptoms such as headache, nausea, weakness, angina, dyspnea, loss of consciousness, seizures, and coma. Neuropsychiatric symptoms may develop weeks... read more , heavy metals, lithium, phenytoin, and certain solvents. Toxic levels of certain drugs (eg, antiseizure drugs, sedatives in high doses) can cause cerebellar dysfunction and ataxia.

Rarely, subacute cerebellar degeneration Neurologic paraneoplastic syndromes Neurologic paraneoplastic syndromes occurs as a paraneoplastic syndrome in patients with breast cancer, ovarian cancer, small cell carcinoma of the lung, or other solid tumors. Cerebellar degeneration may precede the discovery of the cancer by weeks to years. Anti-Yo, now called PCA-1 (Purkinje cell cytoplasmic antibody type 1) is a circulating autoantibody that occurs in the serum or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of some patients, especially women with breast or ovarian cancer.

In children, primary brain tumors (medulloblastoma, cystic astrocytoma) may be the cause; the midline cerebellum is the most common site of such tumors. Rarely, in children, reversible diffuse cerebellar dysfunction follows viral infections.

Etiology references

  • 1. Pandolfo M: Friedreich ataxia. Arch Neurol. 65 (10):1296–1303, 2008. doi:10.1001/archneur.65.10.1296

  • 2. Cook A, Giunti P: Friedreich's ataxia: clinical features, pathogenesis and management. Br Med Bull 124 (1):19–30, 2017. doi: 10.1093/bmb/ldx034

Diagnosis of Cerebellar Disorders

  • Clinical evaluation

  • Typically MRI

  • Sometimes genetic testing

Diagnosis of cerebellar disorders is clinical and includes a thorough family history and search for acquired systemic disorders.

Neuroimaging, typically MRI, is done. Genetic testing is done if family history is suggestive.

Treatment of Cerebellar Disorders

  • Treatment of the cause if possible

  • Usually only supportive

Riluzole 50 mg orally every 12 hours is probably helpful for short-term treatment of ataxia. Some studies suggest that amantadine could improve motor coordination, but overall evidence for or against amantadine treatment of ataxia is insufficient (1 Treatment reference Cerebellar disorders have numerous causes, including congenital malformations, hereditary ataxias, and acquired conditions. Symptoms vary with the cause but typically include ataxia (impaired... read more ).

Some systemic disorders (eg, hypothyroidism, celiac disease) and toxin exposure can be treated; occasionally, surgery for structural lesions (tumor, hydrocephalus) is beneficial. However, treatment is usually only supportive (eg, exercises to improve balance, posture, and coordination; devices to help with walking, eating, and other daily activities).

Treatment reference

  • 1. Zesiewicz TA, Wilmot G, Kuo SH, et al: Comprehensive systematic review summary: Treatment of cerebellar motor dysfunction and ataxia. Report of the Guideline Development, Dissemination, and Implementation Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology 90 (10):464–471, 2018. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000005055

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Alph-E-Mixed , AQUA-E, Aquasol E , Aquavite-E
Eskalith, Eskalith CR, Lithobid
Dilantin, Dilantin Infatabs, Dilantin-125, Phenytek
Exservan, Rilutek, Tiglutik
GOCOVRI, Osmolex ER, Symmetrel
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