Home > Diseases and Conditions > Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
  • We are sorry, but NCBI web applications do not support your browser and may not function properly. More information

PubMed Health. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Atlanta (GA): A.D.A.M.; 2013.

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Korsakoff psychosis; Alcoholic encephalopathy; Encephalopathy - alcoholic; Wernicke's disease

Last reviewed: February 24, 2014.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder due to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency.

Causes

Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are different conditions. Both are due to brain damage caused by a lack of vitamin B1.

Lack of vitamin B1 is common in people with alcoholism. It is also common in persons whose bodies do not absorb food properly (malabsorption), as sometimes occurs with a chronic illness or after obesity (bariatric surgery.

Korsakoff syndrome, or Korsakoff psychosis, tends to develop as Wernicke symptoms go away. Wernicke encephalopathy causes brain damage in lower parts of the brain called the thalamus and hypothalamus. Korsakoff psychosis results from permanent damage to areas of the brain involved with memory.

Symptoms

Symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include:

Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome:

  • Inability to form new memories
  • Loss of memory, can be severe
  • Making up stories (confabulation)
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not really there (hallucinations)

Exams and Tests

Examination of the nervous/muscular system may show damage to many nerve systems:

The person may appear poorly nourished. The following tests are used to check a person's nutrition level:

Liver enzymes may be high in people with a history of long-term alcohol abuse.

Other conditions that may cause vitamin B1 deficiency include:

A brain MRI may show changes in the tissue of the brain. But if Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is suspected, treatment should start immediately. Usually a brain MRI exam is not needed.

Treatment

The goals of treatment are to control symptoms and to prevent the disorder from getting worse. Some people may need to stay in the hospital early in the condition to help control symptoms.

Monitoring and special care may be needed if the person is:

Vitamin B1 may be given by injection into a vein or a muscle, or by mouth. It may improve symptoms of:

Vitamin B1 usually does not improve loss of memory and intellect that occur with Korsakoff psychosis.

Stopping alcohol use can prevent more loss of brain function and damage to nerves. Eating a well-balanced, nourishing diet can help, but it is not a substitute for stopping alcohol use.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Without treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome gets steadily worse, and can be life-threatening. With treatment, it is possible to control symptoms (such as uncoordinated movement and vision difficulties). This disorder can also be slowed or stopped.

Some symptoms, especially the loss of memory and thinking skills, may be permanent. Other disorders related to alcohol use may also occur.

Possible Complications

  • Difficulty with personal or social interaction
  • Injury caused by falls
  • Permanent loss of thinking skills
  • Permanent loss of memory
  • Shortened life span

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider or go to the emergency room if you have symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or if you have been diagnosed with the condition and your symptoms get worse or return.

Prevention

Not drinking alcohol or drinking in moderation and getting enough nutrition reduce the risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. If a heavy drinker will not quit, thiamine supplements and a good diet may reduce the chance of getting this condition, but the risk is not eliminated.

References

  1. So YT, Simon RP. Deficiency diseases of the nervous system. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 57.

Review Date: 2/24/2014.

Reviewed by: Joseph V. Campellone, M.D., Division of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only — they do not constitute endorsementscof those other sites. © 1997–2011 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © 2013, A.D.A.M., Inc.

What works?

  • Thiamine for prevention and treatment of Wernicke‐Korsakoff syndrome in people who abuse alcoholThiamine for prevention and treatment of Wernicke‐Korsakoff syndrome in people who abuse alcohol
    Wernicke‐Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a disorder of the brain caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine). It is characterised by an acute onset of some or all of an eye movement disorder, lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movement (ataxia) and confusion. Patients may die in the acute phase, and many survivors go on to develop permanent memory impairment. Alcohol abuse is an important cause of WKS, although it is not the only consideration. Heavy drinking may lead to particular problems with uptake of thiamine from the diet.
See all (2) ...

Figures

  • Central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.

PubMed Health Blog...

read all...

MedlinePlus.gov links to free, reliable, up-to-date health information from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other trusted health organizations.

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...