Brain pathology of spinocerebellar ataxias

Acta Neuropathol. 2012 Jul;124(1):1-21. doi: 10.1007/s00401-012-1000-x. Epub 2012 Jun 9.


The autosomal dominant cerebellar ataxias (ADCAs) represent a heterogeneous group of neurodegenerative diseases with progressive ataxia and cerebellar degeneration. The current classification of this disease group is based on the underlying genetic defects and their typical disease courses. According to this categorization, ADCAs are divided into the spinocerebellar ataxias (SCAs) with a progressive disease course, and the episodic ataxias (EA) with episodic occurrences of ataxia. The prominent disease symptoms of the currently known and genetically defined 31 SCA types result from damage to the cerebellum and interconnected brain grays and are often accompanied by more specific extra-cerebellar symptoms. In the present review, we report the genetic and clinical background of the known SCAs and present the state of neuropathological investigations of brain tissue from SCA patients in the final disease stages. Recent findings show that the brain is commonly seriously affected in the polyglutamine SCAs (i.e. SCA1, SCA2, SCA3, SCA6, SCA7, and SCA17) and that the patterns of brain damage in these diseases overlap considerably in patients suffering from advanced disease stages. In the more rarely occurring non-polyglutamine SCAs, post-mortem neuropathological data currently are scanty and investigations have been primarily performed in vivo by means of MRI brain imaging. Only a minority of SCAs exhibit symptoms and degenerative patterns allowing for a clear and unambiguous diagnosis of the disease, e.g. retinal degeneration in SCA7, tau aggregation in SCA11, dentate calcification in SCA20, protein depositions in the Purkinje cell layer in SCA31, azoospermia in SCA32, and neurocutaneous phenotype in SCA34. The disease proteins of polyglutamine ataxias and some non-polyglutamine ataxias aggregate as cytoplasmic or intranuclear inclusions and serve as morphological markers. Although inclusions may impair axonal transport, bind transcription factors, and block protein quality control, detailed molecular and pathogenetic consequences remain to be determined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Spinocerebellar Ataxias / classification
  • Spinocerebellar Ataxias / pathology*
  • Spinocerebellar Ataxias / physiopathology