Neuroimaging Applications in Chronic Ataxias

Int Rev Neurobiol. 2018:143:109-162. doi: 10.1016/bs.irn.2018.09.011. Epub 2018 Oct 29.


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and positron emission tomography (PET) are the main instruments for neuroimaging investigation of patients with chronic ataxia. MRI has a predominant diagnostic role in the single patient, based on the visual detection of three patterns of atrophy, namely, spinal atrophy, cortical cerebellar atrophy and olivopontocerebellar atrophy, which correlate with the aetiologies of inherited or sporadic ataxia. In fact spinal atrophy is observed in Friedreich ataxia, cortical cerebellar atrophy in Ataxia Telangectasia, gluten ataxia and Sporadic Adult Onset Ataxia and olivopontocerebellar atrophy in Multiple System Atrophy cerebellar type. The 39 types of dominantly inherited spinocerebellar ataxias show either cortical cerebellar atrophy or olivopontocerebellar atrophy. T2 or T2* weighted MR images can contribute to the diagnosis by revealing abnormally increased or decreased signal with a characteristic distribution. These include symmetric T2 hyperintensity of the posterior and lateral columns of the cervical spinal cord in Friedreich ataxia, diffuse and symmetric hyperintensity of the cerebellar cortex in Infantile Neuro-Axonal Dystrophy, symmetric hyperintensity of the peridentate white matter in Cerebrotendineous Xanthomatosis, and symmetric hyperintensity of the middle cerebellar peduncles and peridentate white matter, cerebral white matter and corpus callosum in Fragile X Tremor Ataxia Syndrome. Abnormally decreased T2 or T2* signal can be observed with a multifocal distribution in Ataxia Telangectasia and with a symmetric distribution in the basal ganglia in Multiple System Atrophy. T2 signal hypointensity lining diffusely the outer surfaces of the brainstem, cerebellum and cerebrum enables diagnosis of superficial siderosis of the central nervous system. The diagnostic role of nuclear medicine techniques is smaller. SPECT and PET show decreased uptake of radiotracers investigating the nigrostriatal system in Multiple System Atrophy and in patients with Fragile X Tremor Ataxia Syndrome. Semiquantitative or quantitative MRI, SPECT and PET data describing structural, microstructural and functional changes of the cerebellum, brainstem, and spinal cord have been widely applied to investigate physiopathological changes in patients with chronic ataxias. Moreover they can track diseases progression with a greater sensitivity than clinical scales. So far, a few small-size and single center studies employed neuroimaging techniques as surrogate markers of treatment effects in chronic ataxias.

Keywords: Ataxias; Cerebellum; MR; PET; Radiotracers; SPECT.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ataxia* / diagnostic imaging
  • Ataxia* / pathology
  • Ataxia* / physiopathology
  • Brain Diseases* / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Diseases* / pathology
  • Brain Diseases* / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Neuroimaging / methods*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography / methods*
  • Spinal Cord Diseases* / diagnostic imaging
  • Spinal Cord Diseases* / pathology
  • Spinal Cord Diseases* / physiopathology
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed, Single-Photon / methods*