What is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (SWK) is a type of brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B-1.

Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are actually different pathologies that often occur together, both due to brain damage caused by a lack of vitamin B1.

Korsakoff syndrome, also called Korsakoff psychosis, produces serious brain damage that affect memory and learning. Usually this disorder (especially in people suffering from chronic alcoholism) is accompanied by Wernicke's encephalopathy, which produces brain damage in the thalamus and hypothalamus. This is because the consumption of alcoholic beverages causes damage to the digestive system, which causes absorption and storage deficiencies, as well as neurotoxicity.

People who suffer from food absorption problems but it is not due to alcohol abuse, may develop Wernicke's disease, but the symptoms are much milder and are generally not accompanied by Korsakoff syndrome.


  • 1 Causes of Korsakoff syndrome
  • 2 The symptoms of Wernicke syndrome
  • 3 The diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
  • 4 Treatment of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Causes of Korsakoff syndrome

As we have already pointed out, the alcoholism or chronic alcohol abuse It is the most common cause of SWK. They may also be related to deficiencies in diet or other medical conditions, such as chronic diseases or surgical interventions, that alter the absorption of Vitamin B-1, also called thiamine.

Chronic alcoholism can damage the liver, raising the level of liver enzymes.

Researchers have found that there are some genetic variations that can increase susceptibility to Korsakoff syndrome. Poor nutrition can also increase the risk.

Korsakoff syndrome can also be caused by anorexy, an excessively restrictive diet, fasting, weight loss surgery, uncontrolled vomiting, AIDS, kidney dialysis, chronic infections or a cancer that has spread throughout the body.

Wernicke syndrome symptoms

The main symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy are:

  • Vision disorders: double vision (diploplia), involuntary and uncontrolled movement of the eyes (nystagmus), strabismus and paralysis of one or more ocular muscles (ophthalmoplegia)
  • Loss of muscle coordination or ataxia, can occur both in eye movements and in other parts of the body such as fingers, hands, arms, legs and trunk.
  • Mental disorders as a state of mental confusion, drowsiness, apathy, slow and non-spontaneous language.
  • Cardiac and circulatory disorders: heart rhythm disturbances (tachycardia), dyspnea on exertion, electrocardiographic abnormalities, alterations in blood pressure and cardiomegaly.

The diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

The diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is not always easy.

An individual with SWK is often confused mentally. This can make communication with the doctor difficult.

The doctor can check first if there is signs of alcoholism measuring blood alcohol levels. You can also make a liver function test to detect possible liver damage. Liver damage is a common sign of alcoholism.

Other tests that can be requested are nutritional tests, to ensure that there is no malnutrition. Nutritional tests may include the following:

  • An albumin test, which measures the levels of this protein in the blood. Low albumin levels can signal nutritional deficiencies, as well as kidney or liver problems.
  • A blood test to check vitamin B-1 levels. A low enzyme activity in red blood cells indicates a deficiency of vitamin B-1.

Image tests are also usually performed such as:

  • An electrocardiogram (ECG) before and after the administration of vitamin B-1, as it can help the doctor determine abnormalities.
  • A CT scan to check for brain injuries related to Wernicke's encephalopathy.
  • An MRI to observe the brain changes related to this disease.

Finally, they are also performed neuropsychological tests to determine the severity of mental deficiencies.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome treatment

In this pathology the treatment should begin immediately to try to delay or stop the progression of the disease. Treatments are also able to reverse nonpermanent brain abnormalities.

Treatment may first involve the hospitalization. In the hospital you will be monitored to make sure your digestive system is absorbing food properly.

Treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may include:

  • Administration of vitamin B-1 intravenously.
  • Administration of vitamin B-1 orally
  • A balanced diet to maintain adequate levels of vitamin B-1.
  • Alcoholism treatment

In a small number of cases, the treatment of vitamin B-1 deficiency produces a negative reaction. This is more common in alcoholics.

Negative reactions to vitamin B-1 reception may vary. The reactions may include alcohol withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, sweating, or mood swings. You may also experience hallucinations, confusion or agitation.

Mortality rates are high if Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is left untreated. Most deaths are the result of a lung infection, blood infection (septicemia) or irreversible brain damage.

Those who receive rapid treatment can see great progress in:

  • Eye problems
  • Muscle coordination
  • The confusion

Must be suppress alcohol consumption to continue the recovery of memory and mental function.

It is also necessary to have a balanced diet to prevent future deficiencies of vitamin B-1. Foods rich in vitamin B-1 are, among others:

  • Lean pork
  • Rice
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Spinach
  • Oranges
  • Milk