The Link between Parkinson’s Disease and Ataxia

Parkinson’s Disease and Spinocerebellar Ataxia are both progressive conditions that affect muscle movement in patients. In both cases, patients can experience a set of symptoms that include slurred speech, trouble walking, body tremors, and so on. The conditions are highly different, however, and require their own unique diagnosis and treatment approaches. Let’s take a closer look.

Understanding Parkinson’s Disease and Spinocerebellar Ataxia

Parkinson’s Disease is one of the most common neurodegenerative conditions in the world. It primarily damages the dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra. Tremors are among the most common symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, as well as uncoordinated gait, difficulty with fine motor skills, and slurred speech.

On the other hand, Spinocerebellar Ataxia, Spinocerebellar Atrophy, or Spinocerebellar Degeneration is a genetic disease caused by either a recessive or dominant gene. It refers to a group of ataxias that are known to be hereditary and cause harm to the cerebellum, the part of the brain which maintains balance and controls movements. Spinocerebellar Ataxia may result in non-coordinated gait, impaired hand-eye coordination, and abnormal speech. Because this condition affects the nervous system, it is also known as a nervous disorder. Stem cell therapy and physiotherapy are important components of both Parkinson’s Disease and Spinocerebellar Ataxia treatment.

Similarities between Parkinson’s Disease and Spinocerebellar Ataxia

One reason why many people confuse the two conditions is because of the word ‘ataxia’. In isolation, ataxia simply refers to any kind of uncoordinated movement. It is caused by damage to the cerebellum and is a symptom of several illnesses, and can also appear after certain viral infections or physical trauma. Patients with Parkinson’s Disease often experience ataxia, which manifests as:

  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty walking and a tendency to fall
  • Difficulty with actions that involve fine motor skills
  • Trouble with swallowing
  • Rapid, uncontrolled eye movements

Ataxia, in fact, is one of the earliest symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. There are also certain Parkinson’s Disease medications that could exacerbate the tremors. 

However, ataxia can also refer to Spinocerebellar Ataxia, which is a group of genetic, neurodegenerative conditions that affect the way the brain coordinates movements. In this case, the cause of the ataxia is not acquired but hereditary, based on faulty genes that cause the damage to the cerebellum. 

One easy way to tell whether ataxia is the outcome of Parkinson’s Disease or Spinocerebellar Ataxia is by looking at the patient’s age. Parkinson’s Disease affects patients above the age of 60. Different subtypes of Spinocerebellar Ataxia, however, can affect patients in the age range of 20-80. Another difference between the two lies in the cause. In most cases, the cause of Parkinson’s Disease is unknown. Spinocerebellar Ataxia, however, is always hereditary. 

Treating the two conditions

Currently, neither Parkinson’s Disease nor Spinocerebellar Ataxia have any cure. Treatment, however, can slow disease progression and manage the symptoms. Physiotherapy, stem cell therapy, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy are all highly beneficial for improving the patient’s independence and mobility. There are also various exercises that specifically target tremors and help to reduce their frequency. For both Parkinson’s Disease and Spinocerebellar Ataxia treatment, assistive aids like crutches and wheelchairs will become necessary as the condition progresses and the patient loses mobility.

In conclusion, Parkinson’s Disease and ataxia are certainly related, but it depends on which meaning of ‘ataxia’ you are referring to. Ataxia in the sense of uncoordinated movement is a primary symptom of Parkinson’s Disease, while Ataxia as shorthand for Spinocerebellar Ataxia refers to a set of genetic conditions with which Parkinson’s Disease has some symptoms in common.

Dr Na'eem Sadiq is a respected stem cell specialist at Plexus, and a prominent neurologist in Bangalore. He studied neurology and clinical neurophysiology in London, and worked with some of the most prestigious medical institutions in England, and the Middle East. He completed his MBBS at Bellary Government Medical College, and a postgraduate degree in psychiatry from NIMHANS in Bangalore.

Dr Na'eem has perfected his knowledge and expertise in Continuing medical education (CME), and training in tissue culture, Stem Cell Therapy, and neurology. Dr Na'eem Sadiq possesses an undying passion to improve people’s lives. This led to the creation of Plexus, a neuro and Stem Cell Research centre in Bangalore in neurosurgery, and neurorehabilitation.