Background: Ataxia is the commonest neurological manifestation of coeliac disease. Some individuals with genetic susceptibility to the disease have serological evidence of gluten sensitivity without overt gastrointestinal symptoms or evidence of small-bowel inflammation. The sole manifestation of disease in such patients may be ataxia. We describe the clinical, radiological, and neurophysiological features of this disorder.
Methods: Patients with ataxia attending the neurology outpatient clinics at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, UK, were screened for gluten sensitivity as shown by the titre of antibody to gliadin. Those with other causes of ataxia were excluded. We carried out clinical, neurophysiological, neuroradiological, and, in two cases, neuropathological examinations.
Findings: 28 patients with gluten ataxia were identified. All had gait ataxia and most had limb ataxia. Those with more severe gait ataxia had longer disease duration. No patient had tremor or other extrapyramidal features. 19 patients showed some form of peripheral neuropathy on neurophysiological examination. 16 patients had no gastrointestinal symptoms. Distal duodenal biopsy showed lymphocytic infiltration in two patients, and changes compatible with coeliac disease in 11. Six patients had evidence of cerebellar atrophy on magnetic-resonance imaging. Necropsy was done on two patients who died; there was lymphocytic infiltration of the cerebellum, damage to the posterior columns of the spinal cord, and sparse infiltration of the peripheral nerves.
Interpretation: Gluten sensitivity is an important cause of apparently idiopathic ataxia and may be progressive. The ataxia is a result of immunological damage to the cerebellum, to the posterior columns of the spinal cord, and to peripheral nerves. We propose the term gluten ataxia to describe this disorder.