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Spinocerebellar Degenerations

Timothy C. Hain, MD Page last modified: December 1, 2011

Figure 1: Sagittal MRI of person with an inherited cerebellar degeneration (of unknown origin). This MRI shows prominent atrophy (shrinkage) of the midline (called the vermis).











The main goal of this page is to serve as a repository for recent information about inherited cerebellar degenerations. It is not comprehensive, but we hope that it might be of some use to individuals searching for information about these rare conditions on the web. We highly recommend also using the OMIM database, which can be accessed on the web. A large number of the genetic ataxias can be tested for using contemporary methodology. An example of a lab that does this is Athena.

Most of the information here concerns inherited conditions, as there is considerable new data derived from researchers using a nearly complete map of the human genome (your tax dollar is doing some good !), and improvements in the technology of molecular biology. It seems quite feasible that within the next decade, we may be able to determine the gene that is damaged in most inherited cerebellar degenerations. As these data become known, it may also be possible to target specific therapies, probably over the next 2 decades. In other words, stay tuned, but we aren't there yet.

There are numerous non-genetic causes of cerebellar disease. which are not covered here.

What to do:

If you have a SCA -- we suggest that you do the following:




All of these disorders exhibit gradually progressive pancerebellar dysfunction, usually beginning in childhood, differentiated by other nervous system involvement.  These disorders were previously known as autosomal dominant cerebellar ataxias. The prevalence of SCA's is estimated to be about 1-4/100,000, but it can be much higher in some regions because of the founder effect.

SCA Type findings and comments Mutation
SCA-1 (3-15%) Hypermetric saccades, slow saccades, UMN CAG repeat, 6p
SCA2 (6-15%)

Diminished velocity saccades, areflexia

Common in Cuba.

CAG repeat, 12q
SCA3 (MJD, 30-40%)

Gaze-evoked nystagmus, UMN, slow saccades.

Common in the Azores.

CAG repeat, 14q
SCA-4 (17 families) areflexia Chromosome 16q
SCA-5 Pure cerebellar Chromosome 11

Downbeating nystagmus, positional vertigo

Symptoms can appear for the first time as late as 65 years old.

CAG repeat, 19p (Calcium channel gene)
SCA-7 Macular degeneration, UMN, slow saccades CAG repeat, 3p
SCA-8 Horizontal nystagmus CTG repeat, 13q



SCA-10 (Zu et al, 5 families) ataxia, seizures, primarily in Mexicans Chromosome 22q linked, pentanucleotide repeat
SCA-11   15q
SCA-12 (rare, OHearn et al) Head and hand tremor, akinseia 5q CAG
SCA-13 (rare) Mental retardation 19q
SCA-14 (rare) Myoclonus 19q
SCA-16 Head and hand tremor 8q

Chorea, seizures, primarily found in Japan

12p CAG expansion
SCA 19, 22 ? Mild cerebellar syndrome, dysarthria  
SCA 25 ataxia with sensory neuropathy, vomiting and gastrointestinal pain. 2p
Mexican-american pedigree of Grewal et al. Pure cerebellar Unknown
Mexican family of Matsuura et al Gaze-evoked nystagmus, seizures Autosomal dominant, chromosome 22q13-qter

SCA1-3, SCA6-7m 12 and 16, are genetically associated with unstable CAG trinucleotide repeats. Trinucleotide repeats are abnormal "nonsense" areas in human DNA, that tend to get bigger with time. In successive generations, the size of the CAG repeat tends to get bigger causing a decrease in age at onset (called anticipation). Other CAG repeat diseases include Huntington's disease, dentatorubral-pallidoluysian atrophy, and spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy. Surprisingly, the CAG repeats in the SCA1-3 are found on different chromosomes.  Other trinucleotide repeat diseases include myotonic dystrophy and fragile X syndrome. In trinucleotide repeats, an expansion may increase when passed between an affected parent and his or her affected child -- this is called anticipation. The premutation carrier state of Fragile-X is also associated with cerebellar findings (Berry-Kravis et al, 2003). This mutation has a frequency of 1/250 in women and 1/813 men.

In SCA1 there is atrophy of Purkinje cells as well as loss of many afferent projections to cerebellar cortex, atrophy of dentatorubral pathways, the dorsal columns and certain cranial nerve nuclei.. SCA1 maps to chromosome 6p. Saccade amplitude is reportedly increased in SCA1, resulting in hypermetria (Rivaud-Pechoux et al, 1998). In dominant kindreds, Moseley et al (1998) found SCA1 in 5.6%.

SCA2 is associated with marked loss or slowing of saccadic eye movements. There is olivopontocerebellar atrophy. SCA2 maps to chromosome 12q. SCA2 may be the most common of the CAG repeat type autosomal dominant cerebellar ataxias. Saccadic velocity (rapid eye movement velocity) is decreased in SCA2 (Rivaud-Pechoux et al, 1998). In dominant kindreds, Mosely et al found SCA2 in 15.2%.

SCA3, which is dominantly inherited, is also known as Machado-Joseph disease, see also the OMIM entry.

SCA3 is characterized pathologically by spinopontine atrophy, degeneration of the dentate nuclei, vestibular nuclei, extrapyramidal structures, motor cranial nerves, anterior horn cells, and posterior root ganglion, but sparing of the cerebellar cortex. Clinically, it is characterized by cerebellar ataxia, pyramidal tract signs and  progressive external ophthalmoplegia. There is often lid retraction producing a characteristic staring expression, termed bulging eyes. (Although this is reported in the literature, we have never encountered this finding in our own clinic population -- and we don't think that this is required). Gaze evoked nystagmus is often present in SCA3 (Rivaud-Pechoux et al, 1998). Restless legs occurs in 45% (Schols, 1998). Fascial and tongue fasciculations are also sometimes present.

MJD was first described in families of Portuguese origin, but it has been documented in many families not of Portuguese ancestry.   Several large studies have demonstrated that MJD accounts for about 84% of autosomal dominant SCA in Portuguese, 50% in Germans, and 11 to 29% in other non-Portuguese ethnic populations. The MJD locus has been mapped to chromosome 14q31.1, and the mutation has been demonstrated to be an expansion of a CAG repeat. (Soong et al, 1997). Atrophy of the brainstem and vermis in MJD is closely correlated with both the size of the CAG repeat as well as patient age (Onodera et al, 1998).

Genetic testing is the usual way that MJD is diagnosed. Clinical testing can be suggestive but there is overlap between many other SCAs. VEMP testing (neck) may be reduced in MJD (SCA-3). We illustrate a case of this here.

SCA6 is an autosomal dominant ataxia associated with small expansions of a trinucleotide repeat (CAG) in the gene CACNL1A4, which encodes a voltage-gated calcium channel. Zoghbi (1997) reviews the genetics of this disorder.

Patients with SCA6 can have at least three different syndromes: episodic ataxia, cerebellar ataxia plus brainstem or long tract degeneration, or pure cerebellar ataxia. Calcium channels are identified in Purkinje and granule neurons. Clinically they have a coarse gaze-evoked nystagmus, downbeat nystagmus on lateral gaze, and poor visual suppression (Gomez et al, 1997). SCA6 accounts for about 30% of dominant ataxias in Japan, and between 5-15% of dominantly inherited ataxia in the United States (Geshwind et al, 1997; Mosely et al, 1998). Imaging studies reveal cerebellar atrophy with relative sparing of the brainstem. In Japan, ataxia is the most common initial symptom. Patients with prolonged courses exhibit dystonic postures, involuntary movements and abnormalities in tendon reflexes (Ikeuchi et al, 1997). Takeichi et al (2000) reported that while ocular smooth pursuit is diminished, vestibular cancellation is normal. This may be a distinctive finding of this condition. As mentioned above, patients with calcium channelopathies including SCA-6 and EA2 have deficient ocular responses to otolith input.

SCA7, also dominantly inherited,  is associated with retinopathy or blindness. It is also a CAG repeat disorder. Mosely et al (1998) found SCA7 in about 5% of dominantly inherited ataxias.

SCA8 was described in 2000 by Ikeda and others. It is a CAG/CTG repeat disorder. It is characterized by incoordination, ataxic dysarthria, impaired smooth pursuit, horizontal nystagmus, and atrophy of the cerebellar vermis and hemispheres. Myotonic dystrophy is another CTG repeat disorder. Both show maternal anticipation. Average age of onset is 53.8 years.

According to Matsuura et al, SCA 9 is reserved for disorders yet to be described in the literature, and SCA10 (Zu et al, 1998), designates another autosomal dominant ataxia, with occasional seizures.

SCA-10 is rare in populations other than Mexicans (Matsuura and others, 2002).

There are other ataxias which have not been given an "SCA#" nomenclature. Grewal and others (1998) described a new autosomal dominant spinocerebellar disorder in individuals of mexican-american heritage. The clinical picture included cerebellar ataxia, gaze and rebound nystagmus. Matsuura et al (1999) mapped an autosomal dominant spinocerebellar ataxia with seizures, also in a hispanic family.

Swartz and others (2003) described a new autosomal ressive ataxia with progressive ataxia, corticospinal signs, axonal sensorimotor neuropathy, and disruption of visual fixation by saccadic intrusions. This disorder was mapped to a mutation on 1p36.

SCA-17 is an autosomal dominant cerebellar ataxia caused by CAG repeat expansion in the TATA-box binding protein gene. The clinical features include ataxia, dementia, hyperreflexia, parkinsonism manifestations such as bradykinesia, and postural reflex disturbances.



Dentatorubral and pallidoluysian atrophy (DRPLA) maps to chromosome 12p, and a gene designated "atrophin-1". It was first described by Smith in 1958 (Neurology 1958:8:205-209), and remains rare outside of Asia. Young adults and children display progressive chorea, cerebellar ataxia, oculomotor function and dementia. This disorder has an unstable CAG repeat. Purkinje cells are intact, unlike SCA1, but there is degeneration of the cerebellar dentate nucleus.

Autosomal dominant cerebellar ataxia associated with pigmentary macular dystrophy maps to chromosome 3p.


Gluten sensitivity ??

Recently, there has been a peculiar overlapping disorder. Gluten sensitivity (gluten is found in bread) was found in a very high number of patients with genetic cerebellar ataxias as described below (Bushara et al, 2001). If this strange association is confirmed by others, it may become common practice to advise screening for gluten sensitivity in all persons with genetic and idiopathic acquired cerebellar ataxia.


Bushara K, Goebel S, Shill H, Goldfarb L, Hallet M. . Gluten sensitivity in sporadic and hereditary cerebellar ataxia. Ann Neurol 2001:49:540-543

Treatment for cerebellar disorders

In general,  main stream medicine has very little to offer in treatment for cerebellar disorders. In the overwhelming majority of cases, cerebellar disorders are caused by death of cerebellar neurons.  Medicine has no method of regrowing dead neurons.  Normally, only a few subpopulations of neurons (such as related to smell) regenerate. There are a few instances where genes have been traced that allow regeneration to occur (i.e. for hair cells in birds).  Pursuit of this direction seem promising to us. Stem cell transplants, at the present writing (2010) are wishful thinking.

Some medications are helpful in suppressing overactive neuronal circuits that cause tremor -  examples are the benzodiazepines and baclofen.

Some medications are helpful in reducing or increasing motor symptoms -- examples are dopamine agonists (such as L-dopa), and antagonists (such as haloperidol).

The alternative medicine community (AMC ?) offers a multitude of treatments for incurable disorders.  We don't especially recommend any of these ourselves, but a few interesting ones suggested by patients are below:


  1. Volunteer or otherwise support efforts to do research or disseminate information about SCA
  2. Consider allowing your brain to be autopsied in the event of your death.
  3. See a neurologist yearly to document your clinical course. Keep careful records.



Copyright October 6, 2013 , Timothy C. Hain, M.D. All rights reserved. Last saved on October 6, 2013