Cerebellar Atrophy: Causes & Symptoms Video

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  • 0:04 What Is Atrophy?
  • 1:24 Symptoms and Diagnosis
  • 3:18 Life Expectancy and Cause
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alyssa Campbell

Alyssa is an active RN and teaches Nursing and Leadership university courses. She also has a Doctorate in Nursing Practice and a Master's in Business Administration.

Cerebellar atrophy is a devastating disease that impacts a person's motor function, coordination, and ability to speak and swallow. Read this lesson to learn the symptoms of cerebellar atrophy, as well as the possible causes of this condition.

What Is Atrophy?

Atrophy occurs when human tissue decreases in size or shrinks to a size smaller than normal, or what is considered average. It can be referred to as body wasting, describing an observation that part of the body is diminishing. Atrophy takes place for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • Immobilization: Limbs that have been placed in casts or that are unable to function are prone to muscle wasting, or atrophy. This means that when a muscle has not been used for a period of time, it's slowly broken down and reabsorbed by the body.
  • Disease: Many musculoskeletal, neurological, and vascular diseases can lead to atrophy. Other illnesses, such as cancer, can also put a drain on the body's resources.
  • Trauma: In some instances of trauma, blood flow may divert itself to areas of the body that are in critical need. When this diversion occurs for a prolonged period of time, vascular pathways begin to atrophy and blood flow establishes new routes based on priority.

In the case of cerebellar atrophy, the cerebellar portion of the brain, which is the part that controls motor function, movement, and the senses, may not be all that is affected. Cerebellar atrophy is a neurological disease or process of wasting that affects the brain, brain stem, and potentially even the spinal cord.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Joe leads a very active lifestyle and enjoys his challenging job as a mathematics professor at the local university. When he is not helping his wife take care of their two children, he enjoys hours of strategizing over poker games and playing competitive league basketball. Lately, Joe has found it difficult to concentrate while teaching and performing high-level cognitive (meaning use of the brain) tasks, and hasn't felt as connected to his favorite sport of basketball.

At first, Joe thought that he might just be tired or too stressed from his activities, even though he used to find his work and hobbies highly enjoyable. After a few months of rest and taking some time off, he realized that stepping back from his activities didn't help the situation. When Joe's wife attended one of his basketball games, she noticed that Joe seemed to have difficulty dribbling and performing plays.

While Joe was upset to hear his wife's concerns, he knew that something serious may be happening. During the first appointment with his doctor, labs were drawn to examine his blood, yet all of the blood work returned normal. At the next visit, the doctor asked Joe to perform some gross and fine motor activities, and tested his ability to remember specific words and catchy phrases that were given at the beginning of the assessment. The doctor also closely examined Joe's eyes in search of nystagmus, or rapid eye movements, that would positively indicate a neurological disorder.

Because Joe had not experienced any seizures, the doctor ordered an MRI, or a magnetic resonance image, test. The test showed wasting of Joe's cerebellum brain tissue, confirming the doctor's suspicion of cerebellum atrophy.

After breaking the news to Joe and his wife, the doctor explained that they should monitor for additional signs and symptoms of the disease, including:

  • Ataxia, or gait disturbance
  • Stroke-like symptoms like aphasia (difficulty with speech and expression)
  • Poor muscle tone and coordination

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