Ataxia Evaluations

Appointment New Patient Appointment or 214-645-8300

The cause of ataxia can be difficult to identify. At UT Southwestern Medical Center, we use every tool and technique at our disposal to determine the condition’s source so we can offer patients the best treatment.

Causes of Ataxia

The cerebellum serves as the brain’s balance and coordination center, integrating information from different parts of the brain and allowing the precise execution of movement during tasks such as walking, reaching for an object, writing, or speaking. Ataxia can result from damage to the cerebellum, with a range of possible causes that includes:

  • Hereditary genetic defects
  • Neurodegenerative disorders, such as cerebral palsy or multiple system atrophy (MSA)
  • Head trauma
  • Stroke
  • Brain hemorrhage
  • Brain tumors (cancerous or noncancerous)
  • Infections caused by a virus, such as chickenpox
  • Exposure to certain drugs or toxins (alcohol, some drugs or medications)
  • Problems with the liver, kidney, or thyroid
  • Vitamin deficiency (especially vitamin E or vitamin B12)
  • Sensitivity to gluten (wheat, rye, and barley)
  • Diabetes
  • Autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis

Approximately 30 to 40 percent of cerebellar ataxias don’t have an identifiable cause, even after extensive testing.

Diagnosing Ataxia

Diagnosis of ataxia is based on a person's medical and family history, along with a complete neurological examination to determine if there are signs of cerebellar disease.

  • An evaluation for ataxia usually includes testing for:
  • Jerky eye movements or eyes that overshoot their target
  • Lack of coordination of movements and difficulty walking
  • Dysmetria, an inability to correctly judge distance

Upon completion of the neurological exam, we might use any of the following tests to determine the cause of ataxia:

  • Brain and spinal cord MRI (with or without contrast)
  • Blood tests
  • Full-body CT scan to look for cancers elsewhere that can indirectly affect the cerebellum
  • Spinal tap to look for inflammation or infection of the cerebellum
  • Nerve conduction studies and electromyography (EMG) to look for neuropathy
  • Evaluations by sleep, pulmonary, urology, and ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists
  • Dopamine transporter scan, an imaging technology that uses small amounts of a radioactive drug to help determine how much dopamine is available in a person's brain
  • Autonomic studies
  • Genetic testing

After diagnosis, we work with patients to develop a treatment plan that is individualized to their specific needs.