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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.

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.

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.