Cerebellar degeneration is a disorder that affects nerves in the back of your brain. It can lead to balance issues or difficulty with speech and eyesight. Cerebellar degeneration can be the result of several health conditions like alcohol use disorder or cancer.
Cerebellar degeneration is deterioration (damage or death) of the nerve cells in your cerebellum. Your cerebellum is in the back part of your brain. It controls many important functions. These include coordination in balance, standing, walking, speech and muscle movements.
Cerebellar degeneration can be the result of:
Risk factors for cerebellar degeneration vary according to the cause. For example, paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration tends to be more common in women over 50. But overall, men tend to have more problems with balance and coordination as they get older.
Alcohol or nutrition-related cerebellar degeneration usually happens around middle age. It’s common in people who have a history of alcohol use disorder.
Cerebellar degeneration can also occur in children who have certain inherited disorders.
Less than 1% of people with cancer develop paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration. However, alcohol-related cerebellar degeneration is more common. Studies suggest that between 12% and 27% of people with alcohol use disorder have some level of cerebellar degeneration.
There are a variety of conditions that can cause cerebellar degeneration, including:
Symptoms of cerebellar degeneration may include:
Additional symptoms that are more common in people with paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration include:
People with cerebellar degeneration may also have mental health disorders such as:
If your healthcare provider suspects you have cerebellar degeneration, they’ll perform a careful evaluation of your symptoms. They’ll also review your personal and family medical history. Be sure to explain how and to what extent your symptoms are interfering with your daily life.
To confirm a diagnosis, your provider will likely suggest an imaging exam. You might have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a CT (computed tomography) scan. These exams create highly detailed pictures of your brain and its tissues. If you have cerebellar degeneration, an imaging exam may show that your cerebellum has grown smaller or deteriorated. These tests can also detect other brain conditions, such as a brain tumor or evidence of stroke.
Your healthcare provider may test your cerebrospinal fluid (the liquid around your brain and spinal cord). They’ll take a sample with a needle during a spinal tap (lumbar puncture). Substances in the fluid may indicate an autoimmune disorder such as paraneoplastic syndromes.
In some cases, a blood test can detect certain antibodies. These are proteins your immune system produces to fight illnesses. People with cancer and paraneoplastic syndromes may have high levels of antibodies in their blood.
If your healthcare provider thinks you have hereditary cerebellar degeneration, they may do genetic testing.
There isn’t a cure for cerebellar degeneration. Treatment usually depends on the underlying cause of your brain dysfunction. However, medications can sometimes help manage certain symptoms, including tremors or problems with walking and dizziness.
Treatment for paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration may include:
Treatment for alcohol-related cerebellar degeneration may include:
People with any form of cerebellar degeneration may need physical, occupational or speech therapy. These therapies can help you improve:
Not drinking alcohol can greatly reduce your risk of alcohol-related cerebellar degeneration. But there aren’t any proven prevention strategies for other forms of the disease.
The prognosis (outlook) for cerebellar degeneration depends on the underlying cause of the disease. Cancer treatment, abstaining from alcohol or adjusting your diet may slow or stop the degeneration. But for other neurodegenerative conditions, the disease will likely worsen over time at various speeds.
People with progressive forms of the disease may develop severe loss of coordination. They might need a wheelchair or an assistive device to move around and prevent falls. They may also lose the ability to live independently if they can’t perform daily tasks or activities. Some become bed-bound.
Children with cerebellar degeneration may have developmental delays.
If you notice any problems with your balance, speech, eyesight or ability to perform everyday activities, contact your healthcare provider right away. Sometimes, people assume these issues are part of the aging process. But they could be signs of a more serious issue.
If you or a loved one is living with cerebellar degeneration, you may want to ask your healthcare provider the following questions:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cerebellar degeneration affects the part of your brain that controls balance, muscle movements and speech. It can lead to problems with walking, speaking and performing daily activities. Cerebellar degeneration can have a variety of causes. Medication and rehabilitation can help people manage the effects of cerebellar degeneration.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/30/2022.
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