Alcoholic cerebellar degeneration

Last revised by Dayu Gai on 5 Jan 2024

Alcoholic cerebellar degeneration is a common type of acquired cerebellar ataxia characterized by chronic vermian atrophy 1. It is a sequela of chronic alcohol use or malnutrition.

Alcoholic cerebellar degeneration has also been described in the literature as alcohol-related cerebellar degeneration, alcohol-induced cerebellar degeneration and nutritional cerebellar degeneration 1,2.

The prevalence is estimated at 12 – 27% from autopsies 2.

Risk factors are those conditions predisposing to malnutrition, including chronic alcohol use 2. Regarding alcohol use, the duration of excessive use is likely the main factor 3-5.

Gait ataxia is the primary manifestation owing to predominant involvement of the anterosuperior cerebellar vermis. Other clinical features include 2:

  • coarse tremor

  • truncal instability

  • nystagmus

  • lower limb ataxia

  • upper limb ataxia (in severe cases)

The exact pathogenesis is yet to be elucidated but it is commonly thought to arise from either alcohol neurotoxicity, nutritional deficiency (notably thiamine) or a combination of both 1,6.

Despite its current name, alcohol may not necessarily be a prerequisite as similar clinicopathological findings have been described in durations of abstinence or in malnourished non-alcoholics 2,6. Hence it is no wonder that alternative terms have been adopted in the literature.

Histologically, there is Purkinje cell loss in the cerebellar cortex accompanied by Bergmann gliosis, and a variable loss of the molecular layer and granule cells 7. Associated neuronal loss in the dorsal inferior olivary nuclei may also be present. The underlying cerebellar white matter is otherwise preserved 7.

Findings are similar to those in MRI.

Abnormalities are best demonstrated on sagittal views of T1-weighted images 2. Midline cerebellar structures are primarily involved.

Early features consist of cerebellar volume loss localized to the anterior superior vermis (lingula, central lobule, culmen, declive) and associated widening of inter-folial sulci 2,7,8. Subsequent progression to involve the posterior inferior vermis and anterior lobes of the cerebellum can occur 8.

These features may occur in isolation or in the presence of other radiographic abnormalities associated with chronic alcohol use, such as those in Wernicke encephalopathy 7. Correlation of radiographic findings with the clinical presentation is crucial as vermian atrophy can be present in asymptomatic individuals 2.

FDG studies may exhibit hypometabolism in similarly affected areas of the cerebellum 9.

Treatment is targeted towards abstinence, nutritional supplementation and gait optimization 2.

Improvement varies with the degree of abstinence and dietary repletion, although gait ataxia can be persistent in severe cases 2.

Alcoholic cerebellar degeneration should be distinguished from cerebellar hypoplasia and other forms of cerebellar atrophy.

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