Cerebellar and afferent ataxias present with a characteristic gait disorder that reflects cerebellar motor dysfunction and sensory loss. These disorders are a diagnostic challenge for clinicians because of the large number of acquired and inherited diseases that cause cerebellar and sensory neuron damage. Among such conditions that are recessively inherited, Friedreich ataxia and RFC1-associated cerebellar ataxia, neuropathy, vestibular areflexia syndrome (CANVAS) include the characteristic clinical, neuropathological and imaging features of ganglionopathies, a distinctive non-length-dependent type of sensory involvement. In this Review, we discuss the typical and atypical phenotypes of Friedreich ataxia and CANVAS, along with the features of other recessive ataxias that present with a ganglionopathy or polyneuropathy, with an emphasis on recently described clinical features, natural history and genotype-phenotype correlations. We review the main developments in understanding the complex pathology that affects the sensory neurons and cerebellum, which seem to be most vulnerable to disorders that affect mitochondrial function and DNA repair mechanisms. Finally, we discuss disease-modifying therapeutic advances in Friedreich ataxia, highlighting the most promising candidate molecules and lessons learned from previous clinical trials.
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