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Ataxia Unit

The Massachusetts General Hospital Ataxia Unit provides expert diagnosis, treatment and education for patients with ataxia and other cerebellar disorders.

Our ApproachMany diseases can damage the cerebellum, including infections, tumors, strokes, toxins and injuries. In addition, there is a wide range of underlying causes and symptoms related to these diseases. Our program focuses on managing patients’ symptoms and optimizing quality of life through a team approach to care that emphasizes education and support for patients and their families.

What to Expect

To request an appointment with the Ataxia Unit, please call 617-726-3216. Before your first visit, your primary care physician or neurologist must complete this referral form (PDF) and fax it to 617-724-7836. Throughout your treatment, we will work with your local doctor to co-manage your care.

Please bring all relevant doctors' notes and test results, including pictures from MRIs or CT scans, on your first appointment. Either hard copies on film or digital copies on CD are fine. You may wish to fill out a Health History Form in advance. At your appointment, one of our neurologists will review your medical and family history. He or she also will complete a thorough neurologic and physical examination. In addition, you may undergo various tests and other diagnostic procedures.

We will do everything possible to diagnose your cerebellar disorder and deliver the best possible clinical care. If we discover your problems are unrelated to the cerebellum, we will refer you to the most appropriate specialists at Mass General for further evaluation and management.

Goals for TreatmentIf they are diagnosed early enough, some ataxias and related disorders may be treatable. Because these conditions often evolve gradually over many years, our treatment approach emphasizes:

  • Slowing the advancement of the disease through a variety of treatments and interventions
  • Maximizing level of function through physical, occupational and speech therapy and rehabilitation services
  • Preventing the complications that may arise from infections, pneumonia, lowered blood pressure and other common problems associated with ataxia
  • Supporting patients and their families at every step in the treatment process

Providing compassionate care is the centerpiece of our treatment approach. Our team strives to help patients maintain quality of life and to educate family members about caring for patients throughout all disease stages. We believe it is critical to support family members whose life situations are also affected by the disease their loved ones are experiencing.

A Collaborative, Multidisciplinary Approach

At the Ataxia Unit, we take the entire brain and body into account when treating patients. Because intellectual and emotional issues can accompany cerebellar diseases, we work with colleagues in the Cognitive Behavioral Neurology Unit to address each patient's specific condition. We may also refer patients to Mass General neurologists specializing in sleep and breathing disorders and other areas.

Outside of the Neurology Department, we collaborate with experts across Mass General and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary to address our patients' many needs. Our multidisciplinary approach may involve the input of accomplished specialists in areas such as:

  • Orthopaedic surgery
  • Neurosurgery
  • Neuroendocrinology
  • Cardiology
  • Diabetes
  • Vestibular neurology
  • Neuro-ophthalmology
  • Physical, occupational and speech therapy
  • Rehabilitation services

About This Program

The Department of Neurology’s Ataxia Unit is one of the few programs in the United States dedicated to treating cerebellar disorders including ataxia. Director Jeremy Schmahmann, MD, who founded the Ataxia Unit in 1994, is a recognized authority on cerebellar disorders. He serves on the scientific advisory board of the National Ataxia Foundation (NAF) and cofounded the New England Ataxia Support Group with Mass General patients.

All of the neurologists in our program specialize in treating cerebellar disorders, including diseases that afflict the cerebellum in children, the spinocerebellar ataxias and vestibular impairments in patients with cerebellar damage. Find out more about ataxia treatments for children on the Pediatric Dystonia Clinic website at MassGeneral Hospital for Children.

A Focus on Cerebellar Disorders

Disorders of the cerebellum result in ataxia, which can cause gait imbalance, incoordination of arms and legs, slurred speech and impaired eye-movement control. Some people also experience mood, memory and concentration problems.

Diagnosing the cause of ataxia is essential because it directly affects the management of the patient and has relevance for the patient's family. Our program excels in this respect, as each of our physicians has specialized expertise in diagnosing and treating various adult and pediatric cerebellar disorders.

There is not yet a cure for the hereditary ataxias (i.e. those that were present at birth and commonly cause symptoms to begin in childhood) or many of the sporadic ataxias (i.e. those that have no known family history and usually begin in adulthood). However, we can effectively treat many symptoms. Where appropriate, we work with other Mass General specialists to offer nonsurgical and surgical options for heart disease, scoliosis and other problems that often accompany ataxia.

In addition, through our close relationship with NAF and the Friedreich's Ataxia Research Alliance, we provide patients with access to clinical trials exploring promising medications and other therapies. Patients may also search for open clinical trials available at Mass General.

Active Research Efforts

Research is a high priority at the Ataxia Unit. Through the Laboratory for Neuroanatomy and Cerebellar Neurobiology, Dr. Schmahmann collaborates with local and national investigators to improve the diagnosis, understanding and treatment of patients with cerebellar disorders. All of the other doctors in our program also lead active research efforts into various aspects of ataxia.

Ataxia

Ataxia causes a failure of muscle control in the arms and legs which may result in a lack of balance, coordination and possibly a disturbance in gait.

Ataxia Telangiectasia (A-T)

Ataxia telangiectasia is a rare childhood disease that affects the nervous system and some other body systems.

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

Partners Neurology Residency

Neurology residents, program graduates, faculty members, and the education director talk about training at Mass General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Ataxia Clinic, Department of Neurology

Wang Ambulatory Care Center
8th Floor, Suite 835
15 Parkman Street
Boston, MA 02114

Phone: 617-726-3216
Fax: 617-726-6991
Email: jschmahmann@partners.org

Public Transportation Access: yes
Disabled Access: yes

Mailing Address

Jeremy D. Schmahmann, MD
Mass General Hospital, Neurology
Charles River Plaza, South Building
3rd Floor, Suite 340
175 Cambridge Street
Boston, MA 02114

Office Contact Information

Phone: 617-726-3216
Fax: 617-724-7836
Referral Fax Line

Fax: 617-726-6991

Next Steps: