Everything you need to know about the cerebellum

The cerebellum is a part of the brain which plays a vital role in almost all physical movement.

This brain part helps drive a person, throw a ball or walk across the room. The cerebellum also helps people with vision and eye movement.

Cerebellum problems are rare, and mostly involve difficulties in movement and coordination.

In this article, we explain the anatomy, functions and possible cerebellum disorders. It also provide tips on how to preserve brain health.

Anatomy

cerebellum anatomy
The cerebellum is vital for coordinating movement

The brain is incredibly complex, but is divided into the cerebrum, brainstem, and cerebellum on a specific level.

The cerebrum is participates in the higher levels of thinking and action. The cerebrum is composed of four lobes or sections, and each performs a different job.

Four brain lobes

The frontal lobe sits at the brain’s neck and top. This is responsible for the highest levels of human thinking and behaviour,, such as planning, judgment, decision-making, control of desires and attention.

The parietal lobe lies behind the frontal lobe. This lobe incorporates sensory information and helps an individual understand his or her position in their environment.

The temporal lobe is at the lower front of the brain. This lobe has strong visual memory , language and emotional links.

The occipital lobe is ultimately located at the back of the brain. The occipital lobe processes visual input from the eyes.

Brainstem and cerebellum

The brainstem and cerebellum accompany the cerebrum in the promotion of full physical and mental function.

The brainstem manages vital automatic functions such as breathing, circulation, sleep, digestion and swallowing. Those are the unconscious processes which the autonomic nervous system regulates.

The brainstem controls the reflexes, too.

Function

The cerebellum is the area behind the brainstem, at the back and bottom of the brain. The cerebellum has several movement and coordination related functions, including:

  • Maintaining balance: The cerebellum has special sensors that detect shifts in balance and movement. It sends signals for the body to adjust and move.
  • Coordinating movement: Most body movements require the coordination of multiple muscle groups. The cerebellum times muscle actions so that the body can move smoothly.
  • Vision: The cerebellum coordinates eye movements.
  • Motor learning: The cerebellum helps the body to learn movements that require practice and fine-tuning. For example, the cerebellum plays a role in learning to ride a bicycle or play a musical instrument.
  • Other functions: Researchers believe the cerebellum has some role in thinking, including processing language and mood. However, findings on these functions are yet to receive full exploration.

Disorders

The most common signs of a cerebellar disorder involve a disturbance in muscle control as a result of the close relationship between the cerebellum and movement.

Symptoms or signs include:

  • lack of muscle control and coordination
  • difficulties with walking and mobility
  • slurred speech or difficulty speaking
  • abnormal eye movements
  • headaches

There are many disorders of the cerebellum, including:

Ataxia

Ataxia is the main symptom of cerebellum dysfunction.

Ataxia is a loss of muscle coordination and control. Such symptoms may be caused by an underlying cerebellum problem, such as a virus or brain tumor.

Loss of coordination is always the first sign of ataxia, and speech problems follow soon after.

Other symptoms include:

  • blurry vision
  • difficulty swallowing
  • tiredness
  • difficulties with precise muscle control
  • changes in mood or thinking

Several factors can cause ataxia, including:

When the underlying cause is treatable, ataxia is sometimes reversible. In other cases, untreated ataxia resolves.

Ataxia disorders

A child with Ataxia disorders
Ataxia can severely impact mobility.

Disorders surrounding ataxia are degenerative disorders. These can be genetic, or sporadic.

A genetic mutation causes ataxia which is genetic or hereditary. There are also common and different forms of mutations.

These conditions are rare and Friedreich’s ataxia, also the most common type, only affects 1 in 40,000 people.

After ruling out a number of possible factors, the doctor will diagnose Friedreich’s ataxia. Genetic testing may classify the disorder that normally occurs during infancy.

Sporadic ataxia is a group of degenerative movement disorders for which inheritance is not shown. This condition usually progresses slowly, and can develop into atrophy of multiple systems.

It presents a range of symptoms, including:

Usually those disorders get worse over time. There is no clear medication for easing or resolving symptoms, except in cases of ataxia where a vitamin-E deficiency is the cause.

There are several devices that can help people with irreversible ataxia to support mobility, speech, and precise muscle control, such as canes and specialized computers.

Ataxia caused by toxins

The cerebellum is vulnerable to poison like alcohol and certain prescribed medications.

These poisons in the cerebellum damage nerve cells which lead to ataxia.

The preceeding toxins will also cause ataxia:

  • alcohol
  • drugs, especially barbiturates and benzodiazepines
  • heavy metals, including mercury and lead
  • solvents, such as paint thinners

Therapy and expected recovery time rely heavily on the toxin and the extent of brain damage associated.

Viral ataxia

A virus can cause ataxia.

This disorder is called acute cerebellar ataxia, and occurs most often in children. Ataxia is a rare Chicken pox virus complication.

Other viruses associated with acute ataxia of the cerebellar are Coxsackie virus, Epstein-Barr virus and HIV. The disorder may also cause Lyme disease, a bacterial infection.

There is no therapy for viral ataxia. It usually resolves within a couple of months, once the viral infection is gone.

Ataxia caused by stroke

Stroke is a clot or bleed in any part of the brain. The cerebellum is a less common site for stroke than the cerebrum, but it can still occur there.

A clot or bleed in the cerebellum can cause the following:

  • ataxia
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • vomiting

The stroke treatment could resolve the ataxia. Occupational and physical therapy can help with the management of any permanent damage.

Tumor in the cerebellum

Tumors are anomalous cells that can either grow in the brain, or migrate from another part of the body. These can be benign tumors and may not spread through the body. Growth and spread of malignant tumors, leading to cancer.

Symptoms of a tumor in the cerebellum include:

  • a headache
  • vomiting without nausea
  • ataxia
  • difficulties with coordination

Diagnosis and treatment will vary according to age, overall health status, disease course, potential outlook and other factors.

Protection

Wearing a helmet at work
Wearing a helmet or hard hat in the presence of possible safety hazards is important for preventing brain damage.

The best way to prevent damage to the cerebellum is to protect general brain health.

Reducing the risk of stroke , brain damage and poison exposure will aid in avoiding other types of ataxia.

  • Quitting smoking: Smoking increases the risk of stroke by thickening the blood and raising blood pressure.
  • Limiting alcohol use: Large amounts of alcohol can damage the cerebellum. Alcohol also raises blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke.
  • Exercise: Regular physical activity benefits the heart and blood vessels and reduces the risk of stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend 2.5 hours of exercise per week.
  • Protecting the head: Wearing seat belts, helmets, and fixing safety hazards in the home reduce the risk of a brain injury. People should take measures to prevent falls. Parents should also ensure that children have no access to balconies or fire escapes.
  • Avoid handling lead: Construction companies no longer use lead, but older homes might have lead pipes and paint. People should keep homes clean from dust that might contain lead and stop children from playing in the soil.

Daily consultation and management can help to reduce the physical limitations of genetic ataxia.

Q:

Why is the cerebellum so important?

A:

Although the cerebellum generates no motor activity, it is responsible for coordinating it.

For example, your cerebellum does not move your legs in a walking motion, but it does instruct your legs on how to balance your walking motion so you can walk in a straight line.

Also, many scientists now believe the cerebellum helps regulate your affection, emotions and behavior.

To organize the functions of other parts of your brain the cerebellum is needed.

Answers represent our medical experts’ opinions. All material is purely informational and medical advice should not be considered.

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