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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome | What Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Published on September 1, 2021
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome | What Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Alcohol can take its toll on your physical and mental health, especially if you partake in forms of alcohol abuse such as binge drinking or heavy drinking.

Those who suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) may develop Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), a disorder of the brain caused by a vitamin B1 thiamine deficiency. 

This condition is actually two different conditions, Wernicke encephalopathy, and Korsakoff syndrome, that can occur together.

Wernicke Encephalopathy

A degenerative brain disorder, Wernicke encephalopathy can be caused by:

  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or other eating disorders
  • ​nutritional deficiency
  • ​inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
  • malabsorption 
  • AIDS
  • excessive vomiting (hyperemesis gravidarum)
  • chemotherapy
  • malnutrition

When one has a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1), damage can be caused to the brain’s thalamus and hypothalamus. A lack of thiamine can also result in cognitive dysfunction. 

Symptoms Of Wernicke Encephalopathy

If this brain damage occurs, some of the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy may include:

  • memory impairment
  • low blood pressure
  • double vision or ocular abnormalities
  • coma
  • hypothermia
  • lack of muscle coordination (ataxia)
  • confusion and disorientation 
  • involuntary eye movements (nystagmus)
  • paralysis of the eyes (ophthalmoplegia)

Korsakoff Syndrome

Korsakoff syndrome, also known as Korsakoff psychosis, is a memory disorder also caused by a lack of vitamin B1. This syndrome is likely associated with alcoholism. 

In addition to memory loss, other symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:

  • coma
  • tremors
  • amnesia
  • problems developing new memories
  • confabulation

Once a person develops Korsakoff syndrome, their nerve cells and other cells of the spinal cord and brain may become damaged. Neurological changes can take place and your nervous system can be harmed over time due to the syndrome.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke encephalopathy is considered the acute phase of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome while Korsakoff syndrome is known as the chronic phase of the disorder. All of the symptoms mentioned above can be experienced when one develops Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. 

This syndrome can be life-threatening. However, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), stopping alcohol use can prevent further damage to the brain. 

Treatment For Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

To help reduce your symptoms of the disorder, there are few steps you can take. If you have an eating problem, consider eating a balanced diet. Doctors may consider the supplementation of vitamins if you’re malnourished. 

A neurologist may want to perform CT scans or an MRI on your brain to determine if there are any shrunken mammillary bodies or lesions related to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. 

Doctors can also perform tests to determine if you have a thiamine deficiency or low transketolase activity.

Permanent nerve damage will likely need to be addressed, as well as the possibility of neuropathy. Your doctors will help assist you with any mental confusion you may experience. 

Treatment For Alcohol Abuse

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol misuse, alcohol treatment centers can likely help. 

Addiction treatment programs include behavioral therapy, peer support, medications, and a wide range of healthcare services. To learn about our alcohol rehab programs, please contact us today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke - Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
National Library of Medicine: StatPearls - Korsakoff Syndrome
National Library of Medicine: StatPearls - Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

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