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Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 1997 May;21(3):434-43.

Cortical and subcortical white matter damage without Wernicke's encephalopathy after recovery from thiamine deficiency in the rat.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, CA 92120, USA.


The relative etiologic roles of ethanol and thiamine deficiency in the cortical atrophy and loss of cerebral white matter in chronic alcoholics are uncertain. The present study examined the distribution of degenerating axons within cortical and subcortical tracts 1 week after recovery from early to late symptomatic stages of thiamine deficiency in the absence of ethanol in Sprague-Dawley rats. The brains of rats exposed to an early symptomatic stage of pyrithiamine-induced thiamine deficiency, 12-13 days of treatment, contained degenerating axons in corpus callosum, anterior commissure, external and internal capsules, optic and olfactory tracts, and fornix and mammillothalamic tracts. A dense pattern of degenerating axons was evident in layers III-IV of frontal and parietal cortex. Less intense and more evenly distributed degenerating axons were present in layers IV-VI of frontal, parietal, cingulate, temporal, retrosplenial, occipital, and granular insular cortex. Neuronal counts in mammillary body nuclei and areal measurements of the mammillary body were unchanged from controls and the thalamus was relatively undamaged. In animals reversed at later and more advanced symptomatic stages of thiamine deficiency, 14-15 days of treatment, degenerating axons were found in other cortical regions and hippocampus and there was extensive neuronal loss and gliosis within mammillary body and medial thalamus. These results demonstrate that a single episode of thiamine deficiency can selectively damage cortical white matter tracts while sparing the thalamus and mammillary body and may be a critical factor responsible for the pathological and behavioral changes observed in alcoholics without Wernicke's encephalopathy.

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