This part of the brain helps a person drive, throw a ball or walk across the room. The cerebellum also helps people with eye movement and vision.
Problems with the cerebellum are rare and mostly involve movement and coordination difficulties.
This article explains the anatomy, functions and possible disorders of the cerebellum. It also offers tips for preserving the health of the cerebellum.
Anatomy of the Cerebellum
The cerebrum is enormously complex, but at a basic level it is divided into cerebrum, brainstem and cerebellum.
The cerebrum is involved in the higher levels of thought and action. Four lobes or sections make up the cerebrum, and each performs a different task.
Four brain lobes
The frontal lobe is located at the front and top of the brain. It is responsible for the highest levels of human thought and behavior, such as planning, judgment, decision-making, impulse control and attention.
The parietal lobe is located behind the frontal lobe. This lobe picks up sensory information and helps the individual understand his or her position in the environment.
The temporal lobe is at the lower front of the brain. This lobe is closely related to visual memory, language and emotions.
Finally, the occipital lobe is located at the back of the brain. The occipital lobe processes visual information from the eyes.
Brain stem and cerebellum
The cerebellum and brainstem accompany the brain in promoting full physical and mental function.
The brainstem manages vital automatic functions such as breathing, circulation, sleep, digestion and swallowing. These are involuntary processes controlled by the autonomic nervous system.
The brainstem also controls reflexes.
what are the functions of the cerebellum?
The cerebellum is the area located at the back and bottom of the cerebrum, behind the brainstem. The cerebellum has several functions related to movement and coordination, including:
- Maintaining balance: the cerebellum has special sensors that detect changes in balance and movement. It sends signals for the body to adjust and move.
- Coordinating movement: Most body movements require the coordination of several muscle groups. The cerebellum synchronizes muscle actions so that the body can move smoothly.
- Vision: The cerebellum coordinates eye movements.
- Motor learning: The cerebellum helps the body learn movements that require practice and refinement. For example, the cerebellum plays a role in learning to ride a bicycle or play musical instruments.
- Other functions: Researchers believe that the cerebellum plays some role in thinking, including language processing and mood. However, the results of these functions have not yet been thoroughly studied.
Disorders associated with cerebellar damage
Because of the close relationship between the cerebellum and movement, the most common signs of a cerebellar disorder involve impaired muscle control.
Symptoms or signs include:
- lack of muscle control and coordination
- difficulty walking and moving
- difficulty speaking or slurring words
- abnormal eye movements
There are many disorders of the cerebellum, including:
- cerebral hemorrhages
- genetic abnormalities
The main symptom of cerebellar dysfunction is ataxia.
Ataxia is a loss of muscle coordination and control. An underlying problem in the cerebellum, such as a virus or brain tumor, can cause these symptoms.
Loss of coordination is usually the first sign of ataxia, and speech difficulties follow shortly thereafter.
Other symptoms include:
- blurred vision
- difficulty swallowing
- difficulties in precise muscle control
- changes in mood or thinking
There are several factors that can cause ataxia, among them:
- poisons that damage the brain
- head injuries
- multiple sclerosis
- cerebral palsy
- chickenpox and other viral infections
Sometimes ataxia is reversible when the underlying cause is treatable. In other cases, ataxia resolves without treatment.
Ataxia disorders are degenerative diseases. They can be genetic or sporadic.
A genetic mutation causes a genetic or hereditary ataxia. There are several different types and mutations.
These disorders are rare and even the most common type, Friedreich’s ataxia, affects only 1 in 40,000 people.
Your doctor will diagnose Friedreich’s ataxia after ruling out other causes. Genetic testing can identify the disease, which usually appears in childhood.
Sporadic ataxia is a group of degenerative movement disorders for which there is no evidence of inheritance. This disease usually progresses slowly and may develop into multiple system atrophy.
It presents with a number of symptoms, including:
- heart rhythm problems
- erectile dysfunction
- loss of bladder control
These disorders usually worsen over time. There is no specific treatment to calm or resolve the symptoms, except in cases of ataxia caused by vitamin E deficiency.
There are several devices that can help people with irreversible ataxia, such as canes and specialized computers to aid mobility, speech and precise muscle control.
Ataxia caused by toxins
The cerebellum is vulnerable to toxins, such as alcohol and certain prescription drugs.
These toxins damage the nerve cells of the cerebellum, causing ataxia.
The following toxins can cause ataxia:
- medications, especially barbiturates and benzodiazepines
- heavy metals, such as mercury and lead
- solvents, such as paint thinners
Treatment and expected recovery time depend on the toxin involved and the extent of brain damage.
A virus can cause ataxia.
This disorder is called acute cerebellar ataxia and is most common in children. Ataxia is a rare complication of the chickenpox virus.
Other viruses associated with acute cerebellar ataxia include Coxsackie virus, Epstein-Barr virus and HIV. Lyme disease, a bacterial infection, can also cause this condition.
There is no treatment for viral ataxia. It usually resolves in a few months, once the viral infection goes away.
Ataxia caused by stroke
A stroke is a clot or hemorrhage 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 hemorrhage in the cerebellum can cause the following:
Treatment of stroke may resolve ataxia. Occupational therapy and physical therapy may help control any permanent damage.
Tumors are abnormal cells that can grow in the brain or migrate there from another part of the body. These tumors may be benign and not spread throughout the body. Malignant tumors grow and spread, resulting in cancer.
Symptoms of a tumor in the cerebellum include:
- vomiting without nausea
- coordination difficulties
Diagnosis and treatment vary depending on age, general health, disease progression, possible prognosis and other factors.
How to protect against cerebellar damage
Preserving overall brain health is the best way to avoid damage to the cerebellum.
Reducing the risk of stroke, brain injury and exposure to poisons can help prevent some forms of ataxia.
- Stop smoking: Smoking increases the risk of stroke by thickening the blood and raising blood pressure.
- Limit alcohol consumption: Drinking 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) recommends 2.5 hours
- Protect your head: Wearing seat belts, helmets, and arranging home safety hazards reduce the risk of brain injury. Individuals should take steps to prevent falls. Parents should also ensure that children do not have access to balconies or fire escapes.
- Avoid handling lead: Construction companies no longer use lead, but older homes may have lead pipes and paint. Houses should be kept clean of dust that may contain lead and children should be prevented from playing on the ground.
Regular consultation and monitoring can help limit the physical restrictions of genetic ataxia.