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Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a condition that involves the presence of two related
disorders: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is typically linked to alcoholism, although alcohol consumption
is not always a factor.
Patients suffering from Wernicke’s encephalopathy commonly experience confusion and disorientation,
but may also display eye movement disturbances and movement and gait abnormalities.
Korsakoff’s syndrome appears in patients who do not completely recover from Wernicke’s
encephalopathy.
It involves extensive memory deficits as well as a number of other cognitive and behavioral
changes.
Korsakoff’s patients typically have a severely impaired ability to form new memories, although
the recall of previously formed memories is also affected.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by a deficiency in the vitamin thiamine, also known
as vitamin B1.
Thiamine is an essential nutrient, and a thiamine deficiency can impair processes like the utilization
of carbohydrates for energy, impacting all organs of the body.
The brain, however, is especially affected, as thiamine deficiency can disrupt processes
like the synthesis of neurotransmitters, maintenance of membrane potential, and myelination.
Alcohol consumption can interfere with thiamine in a number of ways, such as by impairing
its absorption from the small intestine, affecting its transport into the brain, and disrupting
its utilization.
Within a matter of weeks, thiamine deficiency can result in damage to the brain that is
linked to the symptoms mentioned earlier.
Common areas that are affected include the mammillary bodies and hypothalamus, thalamus,
cerebellum, cortex, and brainstem.
In order to minimize negative effects on the brain, when Wernicke’s encephalopathy is
suspected, patients are treated with thiamine supplementation.
When done promptly, this may lead to a full recovery, but when treatment is delayed patients
may die or progress to Korsakoff’s syndrome, and Korsakoff’s syndrome is generally considered
irreversible.