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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a chronic disorder caused by a thiamine deficiency. This memory disorder is generally caused by alcohol abuse, however, other conditions can also lead to the development of this syndrome.

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, is a B-complex vitamin that helps brain cells convert sugar into energy. When thiamine levels drop to dangerous levels, not enough energy is produced and the brain doesn’t function properly. In turn, Korsakoff syndrome can develop.

As mentioned, WKS is most commonly caused by alcohol abuse but is also associated with AIDS, infections, poor diet, and various other conditions. Korsakoff syndrome is typically preceded by a Wernicke encephalopathy episode.

These are separate conditions, however, brain damage due to Wernicke encephalopathy often results in the development of Korsakoff syndrome. As symptoms of Wernicke subside, Korsakoff tends to develop.

Wernicke encephalopathy is an emergency that yields life-threatening brain disruption. Since Korsakoff generally follows one of these episodes, this chronic memory condition is sometimes referred to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of mental activity which can progress to a coma-like state
  • Loss of coordination
  • Leg tremors
  • Vision changes
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • A dropping upper eyelid

Symptoms of Korsakoff Syndrome include:

  • Inability to create new memories
  • Loss of memory
  • Making up stories
  • Having hallucinations 

Causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome 

As mentioned, alcoholism is the number one cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This is because alcoholics generally follow a poor diet and alcohol prevents vitamin B1 from being properly absorbed and stored. Less common cause include:

  • Gastric bypass surgery
  • Colon cancer
  • Eating disorders

The key risk factors associated with this syndrome include lack of medical care, poor diet, undergoing kidney dialysis, and the development of AIDS. If you notice any abnormal symptoms, it’s critical that you get to the hospital.

Possible Treatment

If symptoms of Wernicke’s are treated rapidly and effectively, Korsakoff syndrome may not develop. This is why it’s essential that treatment begins immediately. Any brain abnormalities that are non-permanent can also be reversed.

Treatments vary depending on the circumstance, however, all focus on increasing thiamine levels. This may be done through an intravenous, oral supplementation, an improved diet, or by receiving treatment for alcoholism. 



Alzheimer Society. (2015). Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Alzheimer Society. Retrieved from http://www.alzheimer.ca/~/media/Files/national/Other-dementias/rarer_dementias_wernicke_korsakoff_e.pdf

Xiong, Glen. (2015). Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Medscape. Retrieved from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/288379-overview#showall.

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