Ataxia: What Is It? Causes, Treatment And Warning Signs You Should Know

Ataxia: What Is It? Causes, Treatment And Warning Signs You Should Know
Ataxia: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment And Warning Signs of This Condition

The study revealed that a combination of exercise and deep brain stimulation (DBS) can help patients suffering from ataxia. Read to know more.

Written by Satata Karmakar |Updated : March 16, 2021 9:20 AM IST

Ataxia also known as a disorder wherein the patient suffers a lack of muscle control or coordination of voluntary movements, such as casual walking, picking up objects, etc. Experts say that this condition if not treated on time can lead to serious health complications including difficulty with speech, a problem in eye movement, and even difficulty in swallowing. There are three different types of ataxia that totally depend on the part of your brain which is affected or damaged.

1. Cerebellar or brain ataxia

2. Vestibular or ears ataxia

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3. Sensory or nerves ataxia

Now, what is the difference between these? Cerebellar or brain ataxia is a result of damage in your brain. Similarly, Sensory ataxia is when there is damage to the nerves in your spinal cord or your peripheral nervous system. The last one is Vestibular ataxia which is the result of damage inside your ear or the ear canals that contains fluid.

Risk Factors Of Ataxia

What actually causes ataxia? According to the studies, ataxia is caused when a part of your brain which is responsible for controlling muscle coordination (cerebellum) gets damaged. Some of the risk factors of ataxia include stroke, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. Some of the other risk factors may include:

1. Head trauma

2. Infections such as HIV/AIDS or Lyme disease can also cause ataxia.

3. Paraneoplastic syndromes these are rare disorders that get triggered by the body's weak immunity system.

4. Vitamin deficiencies You are at high risk of ataxia when your body is lacking important vitamins such as Vitamin E, vitamin B-12, etc.

5. Thyroid is another risk factor for ataxia. If you are suffering from ataxia then you need to be conscious of the condition. That is why it is very important to understand the signs and symptoms of this condition. Let's begin.

Warning Signs And Symptoms of Ataxia

As discussed, it is very important to know the symptoms of a disease to make sure you are not affected by it. Some of the common warning signs of this condition are:

1. Unstable coordination

2. Difficulty in body movement walking. The person suffering from ataxia usually tends to stumble.

3. Not able to eat or write properly. The movement of the hands is also disturbed.

4. Faces issues in speaking speech problem

5. The patient may also find it difficult to swallow food.

What Are The Treatment Options Available Then?

A recent research has revealed that a combination of exercise and deep brain stimulation (DBS) can have benefits for treating a rare genetic neurodegenerative disease called ataxia, which is characterized by progressive irreversible problems with movement.

The researchers at Baylor and the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital discovered that combining DBS targeted to the cerebellum, a major motor centre in the brain, and exercise rescued limb coordination and stepping and that the benefits persisted without further stimulation.

In addition, the study reports that stimulating mice with early-stage ataxia showed the most dramatic improvements. These and other findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, provide valuable new insights in designing future DBS strategies to treat the human condition.

"People with ataxia usually have progressive problems with movement, including impaired balance and coordination that affect the person's ability to walk, talk and use fine motor skills. There are limited treatment options for this condition, and patients typically survive 15 to 20 years after symptoms first appear," said first author Lauren Miterko, a graduate student in Dr Roy Sillitoe's lab at Baylor.

DBS currently is used to relieve motor dysfunction in Parkinson's disease and other movement conditions, but its value in treating ataxia has not been extensively explored. In this study, the researchers worked with Car8, a mouse model of hereditary ataxia to investigate whether adjusting the parameters of DBS and the stimulation target location would help increase the treatment's efficacy for the condition.

Frequency matters

"We first targeted the cerebellum, because it's a primary motor center in the brain and this target location for DBS has seen encouraging success for treating motor problems that are associated with other conditions, such as a stroke," Miterko said. "We systematically targeted the cerebellum with different frequencies of DBS and determined whether there was an optimal frequency that would boost the efficacy of the treatment. When we used a particular frequency, 13 Hz, that was when motor function improved in our Car8 mice."

DBS plus exercise improved the outcomes

Neurostimulation with DBS improved muscle function and the general mobility of Car8 mice, but the researchers looked for additional ways to improve the condition.

"We know that exercise, in general, can benefit both muscle and neuronal health, and previous work in Parkinson's disease and stroke patients mentioned that neuromodulation techniques combined with physical stimulation showed benefits, so we decided to include exercise in our investigation," Miterko said. "We found that when the animals received DBS during exercise on a treadmill, there were improvements in motor coordination and stepping that we had not observed with DBS alone."

"In our ataxia model, improvements did not go away after one week of treatment, which has important practical implications for potential clinical applications," said co-author Dr Meike E. van der Heijden, a postdoctoral associate in the Sillitoe lab. "Also, all young mice with early-stage ataxia responded, suggesting that it is possible that early treatment also might provide the biggest benefit for patients in the future."

The researchers also gained insights into the type of brain cells involved in the process of restoring movement in this ataxia mouse model. They found that Purkinje cell neurotransmission is needed for DBS to be effective. Purkinje cells are a type of neuron located in the cerebellar cortex of the brain. These cells are involved in the regulation of movement, balance, and coordination among other functions.

"One of our goals is to further elucidate the role Purkinje cells play in recovering from ataxia," van der Heijden said.

"We are particularly excited about the results of this study because it may be possible to extrapolate our approach for treating not only other motor diseases, but perhaps also non-motor neuropsychiatric conditions," said corresponding author Dr Roy Sillitoe, associate professor of pathology and immunology and neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, and director of the Neuropathology Core facility at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute of Texas Children's Hospital.