Understand What Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Is?

  • Post category:Alcohol

Do you know what is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome? What is its major cause? How it is diagnosed? What treatment is best for it and the way to prevent the disease from occurring? Grab the complete information about the disease in the blog below.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) also known as Alcohol Dementia is the type of brain disorder that may arise due to the high, regular consumption of alcohol for a long period. It may also arise in the patient who underwent stomach surgery, have some intestinal problems, cancer or malnutrition.

A Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is associated with a deficiency of Vitamin B1 or Thiamine and is two different health conditions occurring at the same time. Wernicke’s disease (WD) also known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy occurs at the initial phase of the onset phase of Korsakoff syndrome.

Although few researchers consider both the syndrome separate yet connected to each. Wernicke syndrome is found to be the acute phase of the disease that lasts for a shorter time but with severe symptoms, while Korsakoff syndrome is the chronic phase that lasts longer.

The syndrome is associated with the difficulties associated with thought processing. If it is not diagnosed or treated early phase then it can lead to permanent brain damage or the death of the person.

This neurological disorder is often characterized by the clinical triad like confusion, poor coordination of voluntary muscles, abnormalities in eyes, memory loss, etc. Also, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is associated with the decreased absorption and utilization of vitamin B1.

Signs and Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

The syndrome usually begins with the onset of Wernicke’s encephalopathy that later develops Korsakoff syndrome. Get to know Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome symptoms in the details below:

Symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy

Wernicke Encephalopathy requires immediate medical attention and treatment to reverse the disorder. Following are some of the acute symptoms associated with the disease.

  • Decreased mental ability
  • Confusion
  • Leg tremors
  • Staggering
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Blur vision
  • Drooping of eyelid
  • Abnormal movement of the eye

Symptoms of Korsakoff Syndrome

It usually develops if the Wernicke Encephalopathy left untreated. Some of the symptoms of Korsakoff Syndrome are:

  • Memory loss
  • Hallucinations
  • Confabulation (associated with making up stories)

What is the Major Cause of WKS?

The major cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is the deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine). The vitamin is required by all the body tissues including nervous and cardiovascular tissue for the proper functioning of the cells. The deficiency of the vitamin affects these two organs to a greater extent as compared to other organs.

Some of the major cause of WKS are:

  • Alcohol

The disease is common among alcoholics in the United States. The person who drinks alcohol frequently reduces the absorption of thiamine, reduces its level from the liver, and affect the activity of the enzyme that converts the thiamine into the active state. All this make the body deficient of this nutrient and thus lead to various symptoms and other associated disorders.

  • Malnutrition

Another major cause of the disease is malnutrition. The prolonged starvation, eating disorder, chronic vomiting in hyperemesis gravidarum can lead to a decrease in the level of certain nutrients from the body that can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Along with this, a person suffering from chronic disease like AIDS, Cancer, Kidney disorder are often found affected with the disease.

  • Genetic Factor

In rare cases, hereditary factors are found to be the cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, the research is going on to understand the role of genetics in the development and occurrence of the disorder.

What Percent of the US Population is Affected With WKS?

The syndrome is common among the population of the Western countries, including the US where around 0.4-2.8percent of people are affected by the same. 12-14 percent of the population who drink alcohol in the quantity more than the moderate level is affected by the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

How Syndrome is Diagnosed?

To diagnose the syndrome, the thiamine level in the blood is tested. Other than this there is a cognitive assessment, blood tests, neurological screenings to check the movement of the eye, muscle coordination and strength. MRI test is also conducted that help in identifying the lesions in the brain that may develop due to the occurrence of the disease.

Here is the diagnosis to find the exact reason for the syndrome.

Diagnosis of WKS in an Alcoholic Person

  • Checking of blood alcohol level.
  • Liver test to inspect liver damage
  • Physical Examination to access heart rate, eye movement, reflexes, blood pressure, body temperature, etc.

Diagnosis of WKS Due to Nutritional Deficiency

  • A blood test to measure thiamine level in the blood
  • Serum albumin test to measure albumin (a level of protein)
  • Enzyme activity of RBCs (Low enzyme activity points towards vitamin B1 deficiency)

Other Tests for Diagnosis of WKS

  • Electrocardiogram before and after taking B1
  • CT scan to check brain lesions developed due to the disease
  • MRI to check changes that might occur in the brain.

Which is the Best Treatment Given to the Person With WKS?

Once the disease is diagnosed by the above methods its treatment should start without delay. Getting the treatment at the early stage can prevent the disease from progressing further or in reversing some brain abnormalities.

The best treatment followed for the disease is to inject vitamin B1 through an intravenous line (IV) in the arm, recommending a balanced diet rich in vitamin B1, treating alcoholism to reduce its consumption.

Also, the Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome may be treated with supplements of food rich in vitamin B1 and other essential nutrients that produce thiamine.

Although this is the best-known treatment, many people with alcoholism often found to face some negative side-effects of the treatment. This may vary from individual to individual and includes common withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, sweating, or mood swings. Also, the patient may experience a confused mind and situation, agitation and hallucination.

If the person is suspected with the severe condition then he or she should be given intravenous treatment until the doctor found the good level of the nutrient in the blood and the improvement in the health conditions like mental status change, vision abnormalities, ataxia, etc which is then followed by the regular supplement of the dosage either through medicine or food.

How to Prevent the Syndrome from Occurring?

The best way to prevent the syndrome from occurrence is to provide the patient with a well-balanced and healthy diet. Also, it is important to provide the right support and guidance to the person to keep him or her away from the alcohol.

Some of the major food rich in thiamine and help in fighting against the syndrome are:

  • Peas
  • Soybean
  • Enriched rice
  • Yeast extract
  • Lima beans
  • Sunflower, Chia, Pumpkin and Squash seeds
  • Macadamia, Pistachio, and Brazil Nuts
  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Asparagus
  • Spinach
  • Milk
  • Orange


Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is the major disease that often leads to brain damage and death of the person. But the disease always remains as the hot topic among the scientist as still the two are considered as different and as distinct phases.

On one hand, where Korsakoff Syndrome is associated with memory loss, create a gap between false and real memory, poor muscle coordination, etc Wernicke syndrome is often associated with some different symptoms. Also, it has been found that Wernicke syndrome slows down when Korsakoff Syndrome starts in an individual.

In all, the cause is one that is thiamine deficiency that usually occurs in an alcoholic person as alcohol leads to the deficiency of Vitamin B1. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome life expectancy remain normal if the person remains on a good diet and stay away from alcohol.

Therefore, the best treatment is to reduce or stop consuming alcohol and supplementing the good dose of the vitamin in the diet.

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