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Ataxia

A movement disorder of the cerebellum is referred to as ataxia    . It presents as a loss of coordination in voluntary movements. Ataxia can also refer to sensory deficits that cause balance problems, primarily in proprioception and equilibrium. When the problem is observed in movement, it is ascribed to cerebellar damage. Sensory and vestibular ataxia would likely also present with problems in gait and station.

Ataxia is often the result of exposure to exogenous substances, focal lesions, or a genetic disorder. Focal lesions include strokes affecting the cerebellar arteries, tumors that may impinge on the cerebellum, trauma to the back of the head and neck, or MS. Alcohol intoxication or drugs such as ketamine cause ataxia, but it is often reversible. Mercury in fish can cause ataxia as well. Hereditary conditions can lead to degeneration of the cerebellum or spinal cord, as well as malformation of the brain, or the abnormal accumulation of copper seen in Wilson’s disease.

Watch this short video to see a test for station. Station refers to the position a person adopts when they are standing still. The examiner would look for issues with balance, which coordinates proprioceptive, vestibular, and visual information in the cerebellum. To test the ability of a subject to maintain balance, asking them to stand or hop on one foot can be more demanding. The examiner may also push the subject to see if they can maintain balance. An abnormal finding in the test of station is if the feet are placed far apart. Why would a wide stance suggest problems with cerebellar function?

Everyday connections

The field sobriety test

The neurological exam has been described as a clinical tool throughout this chapter. It is also useful in other ways. A variation of the coordination exam is the Field Sobriety Test (FST) used to assess whether drivers are under the influence of alcohol. The cerebellum is crucial for coordinated movements such as keeping balance while walking, or moving appendicular musculature on the basis of proprioceptive feedback. The cerebellum is also very sensitive to ethanol, the particular type of alcohol found in beer, wine, and liquor.

Walking in a straight line involves comparing the motor command from the primary motor cortex to the proprioceptive and vestibular sensory feedback, as well as following the visual guide of the white line on the side of the road. When the cerebellum is compromised by alcohol, the cerebellum cannot coordinate these movements effectively, and maintaining balance becomes difficult.

Another common aspect of the FST is to have the driver extend their arms out wide and touch their fingertip to their nose, usually with their eyes closed. The point of this is to remove the visual feedback for the movement and force the driver to rely just on proprioceptive information about the movement and position of their fingertip relative to their nose. With eyes open, the corrections to the movement of the arm might be so small as to be hard to see, but proprioceptive feedback is not as immediate and broader movements of the arm will probably be needed, particularly if the cerebellum is affected by alcohol.

Reciting the alphabet backwards is not always a component of the FST, but its relationship to neurological function is interesting. There is a cognitive aspect to remembering how the alphabet goes and how to recite it backwards. That is actually a variation of the mental status subtest of repeating the months backwards. However, the cerebellum is important because speech production is a coordinated activity. The speech rapid alternating movement subtest is specifically using the consonant changes of “lah-kah-pah” to assess coordinated movements of the lips, tongue, pharynx, and palate. But the entire alphabet, especially in the nonrehearsed backwards order, pushes this type of coordinated movement quite far. It is related to the reason that speech becomes slurred when a person is intoxicated.

Chapter review

The cerebellum is an important part of motor function in the nervous system. It apparently plays a role in procedural learning, which would include motor skills such as riding a bike or throwing a football. The basis for these roles is likely to be tied into the role the cerebellum plays as a comparator for voluntary movement.

The motor commands from the cerebral hemispheres travel along the corticospinal pathway, which passes through the pons. Collateral branches of these fibers synapse on neurons in the pons, which then project into the cerebellar cortex through the middle cerebellar peduncles. Ascending sensory feedback, entering through the inferior cerebellar peduncles, provides information about motor performance. The cerebellar cortex compares the command to the actual performance and can adjust the descending input to compensate for any mismatch. The output from deep cerebellar nuclei projects through the superior cerebellar peduncles to initiate descending signals from the red nucleus to the spinal cord.

The primary role of the cerebellum in relation to the spinal cord is through the spinocerebellum; it controls posture and gait with significant input from the vestibular system. Deficits in cerebellar function result in ataxias, or a specific kind of movement disorder. The root cause of the ataxia may be the sensory input—either the proprioceptive input from the spinal cord or the equilibrium input from the vestibular system, or direct damage to the cerebellum by stroke, trauma, hereditary factors, or toxins.

Watch this short video to see a test for station. Station refers to the position a person adopts when they are standing still. The examiner would look for issues with balance, which coordinates proprioceptive, vestibular, and visual information in the cerebellum. To test the ability of a subject to maintain balance, asking them to stand or hop on one foot can be more demanding. The examiner may also push the subject to see if they can maintain balance. An abnormal finding in the test of station is if the feet are placed far apart. Why would a wide stance suggest problems with cerebellar function?

A wide stance would suggest the person needs to maintain balance by broadening their base. Instead of continuous correction to posture, this can keep the body stable when the cerebellum cannot.

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 04, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11496/1.8
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