Cerebellum damage is rare, but its effects can be quite serious. To help you deal with these types of TBIs, we’ve put together this guide to cerebellar injuries.
We’ll cover everything from the causes of cerebellum brain damage to effective treatment methods.
What is the Cerebellum?
The cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”) is located on the base of the brain, right behind the brain stem.
The cerebellum controls which muscles should activate and which need to relax. It does this by sending inhibitory or excitatory signals to the right muscle groups.
However, if these brain regions become damaged, this process is disrupted, which will make muscle coordination difficult, if not impossible.
Besides muscle movement, new discoveries show the cerebellum is crucial in several other functions, including:
- Language learning
- Balance and equilibrium
- Eye movement
This means that cerebellum brain damage can affect all these functions and others.
Causes of Cerebellum Brain Damage
Because of the cerebellum’s location, it’s very difficult for an external force to damage it. However, a strong blow to the back of your head could cause trauma.
Most cerebellum brain damage occurs after an anoxic brain injury or after an infection. Alcohol abuse can also cause the cerebellum to deteriorate.
When the cerebellum sustains damage, the signals it sends to the muscles become weaker or can cease entirely. This disruption is what leads to the various side effects associated with cerebellar damage.
Side Effects of Cerebellum Brain Damage
An injury to the cerebellum can lead to a wide range of symptoms. The following are some of the most common cerebellum brain damage side effects:
1. Loss of Muscle Coordination (Apraxia)
Many people with cerebellum brain damage walk with a wide, staggering gait. This occurs because damage to the cerebellum often affects the ability to coordinate muscle movement.
As discussed above, the cerebellum sends inhibitory and disinhibitory signals to various muscle groups to enable purposeful movement.
For example, to pick up a fork, you must extend your arm first, which means your bicep muscle cannot fire while this is happening. Otherwise, your arm would just contract. The cerebellum, therefore, will send signals to your bicep, telling it to relax. This allows you to extend your arm easily.
However, when the cerebellum sustains damage, it can no longer send the correct signal to the correct muscles. This can make everything from walking to trying to pick up a fork much more difficult. This lack of coordination is known as apraxia.
Apraxia can also affect your facial muscles and even your tongue, which can cause problems with slurred speech and swallowing.
2. Balance problems
Cerebellum brain damage can also lead to severe balance issues. Since balance depends on multiple muscles coordinating their movements, lack of coordination can give a person difficulties when walking.
You might have trouble holding yourself upright when sitting or standing. You also can feel a strong sense of dizziness.
The best way to treat these problems is with balance exercises for brain injury patients.
3. Trouble detecting visual motion
Another side effect associated with cerebellum brain damage is problems with visual detection.
This can make it difficult, sometimes impossible, to tell which direction an object is moving.
Unfortunately, there aren’t very many ways to treat this problem. Sometimes, as the cerebellum heals, it will go away on its own.
Otherwise, you will need to learn some techniques to compensate. An occupational therapist can show you some helpful ones that will let you navigate around your environment safely.
4. Eye movement problems (nystagmus)
A distinctive feature of cerebellum brain damage is eye movement problems. With this side effect, the eye usually makes rapid, uncontrolled movements, which may cause your field of vision to appear scattered.
This condition is known as nystagmus, and it occurs because the brain can no longer coordinate eye movement.
Symptoms of nystagmus mainly include fast, uncontrollable eye movements. The direction of the eye movement can look a little different in each person though. In fact, there are three main types of movement a person with nystagmus can experience after head injury:
- Horizontal nystagmus which involves side-to-side eye movements.
- Vertical nystagmus which causes up and down movements.
- Rotary nystagmus which involves circular eye movements.
These movements can occur in one or both eyes.
Nystagmus can also cause poor eyesight and severe dizziness, though for most people their vision is not severely affected.
5. Cognitive effects
In the past, many neuroscientists believed that the cerebellum did not play a part in higher cognitive reasoning.
More and more research, however, is finding that this is not true. Cerebellum damage actually does impact a person’s cognitive functions in the same way other brain damage does.
Some of the areas that cerebellum brain damage affects include:
- Ability to organize, plan, and initiate actions (also called executive dysfunction)
- Abstract reasoning
- Working memory
- Visual memory
- Language skills
Treating the Effects of Cerebellar Damage
Most effects of cerebellum brain damage are a result of poor communication between the brain and the muscles. Because of the damage that has occurred, the signals that the brain sends to coordinate movements do not reach the correct muscles.
Therefore, to treat these effects, patients must improve communication between their brain and the rest of the body. Fortunately, you can accomplish this by activating your brain’s natural repair mechanism, neuroplasticity. The best way to do this is through repetitious exercise.
When you practice a task, even if you can’t do it perfectly, your brain forms new neural pathways in response. After enough time and practice, the new pathways become stronger and the connection to your muscles may partially return. This allows you to coordinate movement again.
Since apraxia after cerebellum brain damage affects the neuromuscular system, the best way to treat it is to activate neuroplasticity through practicing the movement you want to regain.
For example, if you have trouble eating, break down the process into separate steps, and practice each step individually before putting them all together. A sample exercise might look like this:
- Bring hand down to the table
- Open fingers
- Grasp spoon
- Bring spoon to mouth
The more you practice, the more your brain will create new neural pathways. This can allow you to regain that function.
Sometimes cerebellar brain damage makes it hard to visualize the steps you need to take to complete an action. A physical or occupational therapist can help you with this.
Cerebellum Brain Damage: Conclusion
Cerebellar damage can cause serious problems with muscle coordination. Fortunately, recovery is possible.
The key to healing any brain injury, including cerebellar injuries, is to engage your brain’s neuroplasticity. You need to keep your body and mind active if you want to make progress.
If you commit to doing your therapy exercises every day, you should start to see some improvements in your balance, coordination, and cognitive skills, depending on how severe your injury was.
We hope this guide to cerebellum brain damage gives you the tools you need to make a great recovery.