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About Ataxia

What is ataxia? 

The word “ataxia” means “absence or loss of order.”Ataxia does not refer to a specific disease or disorder.  Rather, it is a set of symptoms caused by a dysfunction in the cerebellum and the connections that transfer information to and from the cerebellum.  People who have ataxia have uncontrolled, uncoordinated movements in the way they walk,move their arms or eyes, or talk. If a person has these symptoms, they are said to have ataxia. Ataxia can have many different underlying causes.

  • Some types of ataxia are considered to be “non-genetic.” These types of ataxia can be caused by diseases such as multiple sclerosis, strokes, brain tumors, heat stroke, or infections. Other types of non-genetic ataxia may be caused by exposure to alcohol, drugs, medicines, or other chemicals. Some types of non-genetic ataxias may be due to vitamin deficiencies or problems with the immune system. Doctors will often look for these non-genetic causes first because some types of non-genetic ataxia may be treatable.
  • Some ataxias are hereditary. Hereditary means that the ataxia is caused by a change in the genetic instructions that tell our cerebellum how to work. These genetic changes can be passed through families. The different types of hereditary ataxia are discussed in more detail below.
  • Some ataxias are considered “sporadic.” Sporadic means that there is no single genetic or environmental cause of the ataxia. Sporadic ataxias may be due to the interaction of many genetic risk factors with many environmental exposures. While we do not understand the causes of sporadic ataxias today, many people are working to understand the genetic risk factors and environmental exposures that can cause sporadic ataxia.

The word ataxia itself does not denote a specific disease or disorder that affects all people in the same way. Ataxia, regardless of cause, affects every person differently. Even for inherited ataxias, the condition may affect various parts of the body in different ways, and may vary in severity. For example, many family members may be afflicted with the same type of inherited ataxia, but they may all have unique symptoms and/or severities. 


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