Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Wernicke’s encephalopathy

Wernicke's encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disorder caused by the lack of thiamine (vitamin B1). It may result from alcohol abuse, dietary deficiencies, prolonged vomiting, eating disorders, or the effects of chemotherapy.

Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy

  • Mental confusion
  • Vision impairment
  • Stupour
  • Coma
  • Hypothermia (core body temperature drops below required level for normal body function)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Problems with coordination that may affect fingers, hands, arms, legs, body, speech and eye movements

Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome

Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome is a memory disorder that also results from a deficiency of thiamine. It is associated with alcoholism. The heart, vascular, and nervous system are involved.

Symptoms of Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome

The main features of Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome are the impairments in acquiring new information or establishing new memories, and in retrieving previous memories. Other symptoms include:

  • Confabulation (making up stories)
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren't really there)
  • Disorientation
  • Attention deficit
  • Vision impairment

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Although Wernicke's and Korsakoff's may appear to be two different disorders, they are generally considered to be different stages of the same disorder, which is called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke's encephalopathy represents the "acute" phase of the disorder, and Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome represents the "chronic" phase.

Treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Treatment involves replacement of thiamine and providing proper nutrition and hydration. In some cases, drug therapy is also recommended.

Most symptoms can be reversed if detected and treated promptly. However, improvement in memory function is slow and, usually, incomplete. Without treatment, these disorders can be disabling and life-threatening.

Last Updated: 11/08/2017