Ataxia: Types, Symptoms & Causes

Instructor: Jose Hernandez
This lesson will cover the basics of ataxia. We will go over the different types of ataxia, as well as the symptoms and the main causes of this disorder.

What is Ataxia?

You are sitting in class and you notice a person in a wheelchair having problems coordinating simple body movements. The student tells you that he has ataxia. Ataxia is a neurological disorder that affects coordination, more commonly involuntary movements. Neurological disorders are diseases that affect the brain, spinal cord, and nerves in the body. Ataxia affects the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls the movement and coordination of muscles. In this lesson we will cover the different types of ataxia, the symptoms manifested, and the main causes of ataxia. We will cover how a person in their college years, such as the student in class, can acquire ataxia, even though it is more commonly manifested in children and teenagers.

The cerebellum is the main area of the brain affected by ataxia
The cerebellum is the main area of the brain affected by ataxia

What are the Different Types of Ataxia?

Although there are many different types of ataxia, most ataxias can be characterized into three groups: hereditary ataxia, idiopathic late-onset cerebellar ataxia (ILOCA) and acquired ataxia. We will first cover some of the different types of ataxias that fall under the hereditary ataxia group.

  • Friedreich's ataxia - This is the most common type of ataxia. It usually starts manifesting itself before a person reaches 25. As a person ages, the disease worsens, causing a person to have a shorter life span.
  • Ataxia-telangiectasia - This type of ataxia occurs at a less frequent rate than Friedreich's ataxia. The symptoms begin during early childhood. Children with this disorder usually need a wheelchair by the age of ten, as they begin to have difficulty walking. This rare disorder causes a very short life span of about 25 years, however, there have been cases when patients live up to 50 years of age.
  • Spinocerebellar ataxia - Unlike Friedreich's ataxia and ataxia-telangiectasia, spinocerebellar ataxia begins manifesting itself during adulthood.
  • Episodic ataxia - This type of ataxia is quite rare and unusual. It develops during the teenage years, and unlike the other ataxias described in this lesson, this ataxia occurs sporadically. A person can experience episodes that can last anywhere between a few minutes to several hours.

The other two types of ataxia are less diverse than hereditary ataxia. Idiopathic late-onset cerebellar ataxia is a type of ataxia that starts manifesting itself after the age of 50. The symptoms, which will be described in the next section, will worsen as the disorder progresses. The third group of ataxia is acquired ataxia. Unlike the previously described types of ataxia, acquired ataxia is caused by certain diseases or head trauma. The symptoms develop quickly, and can either worsen, remain the same, or improve.

What are the Symptoms of Ataxia?

So how is ataxia manifested? Some common symptoms of ataxia include bad coordination in the arms or legs, slurred speech, problems balancing, which can be manifested in a person unable to walk properly. Other symptoms may include:

  • Fine motor skills incoordination - a person might have problems with simple tasks such as writing, using food utensils, or typing
  • Involuntary eye movement - a person might experience fast involuntary movements in the eyes.
  • Visual problems - a person might experience problems reading, having blurred or double vision.
  • Speech or slurred speech
  • Curved spine
  • Fatigue

Depending on the type of ataxia, the symptoms might begin in different life stages. Recessive disorders can cause ataxia symptoms to begin earlier in life. Friedreich's ataxia can have an adult onset in certain situations; a dominant ataxia can often begin in a person's 20s, 30s, or even later in life.

What Causes Ataxia?

There are several causes of ataxia. It can be caused by either a genetic disorder or through head trauma. Degeneration, meaning the decline of function, of nerve cells in the cerebellum can lead to ataxia; the cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination. A few common causes of ataxia may include:

  • Stroke - a stroke would reduce the amount of oxygen and blood supply to reach the brain. Ataxia can be caused when the cerebellum is affected.
  • Transient ischemic attack - A transient ischemic attack is a temporary loss of blood to the brain. Similar to a stroke but less severe.
  • Cerebral palsy - A type of disorder that affects brain development during early childhood.
  • Multiple sclerosis - This disorder leads to poor coordination due to the nervous system being affected.

However, as previously mentioned, ataxia can also be caused by genetic disorders. A genetic disorder is caused by a defect in a gene. The disorder can be inherited from a parent, however, a parent can have the defective gene without expressing any symptoms, preventing any family history to be established.

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