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Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD)

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Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Other Names for this Disease
  • Alcohol induced encephalopathy
  • Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome
  • Transketolase defect
  • Wernicke's encephalopathy
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Your Question

Does Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome affect a person's ability to walk, feed themselves, and move? What are the odds of an individual who has been an alcoholic for over 30 years recovering from this condition?

Our Answer

We have identified the following information that we hope you find helpful. If you still have questions, please contact us.

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder due to thiamine deficiency that has been associated with both Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke's encephalopathy can result from alcohol abuse, dietary deficiencies, prolonged vomiting, eating disorders, or the effects of chemotherapy. Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome is a memory disorder that is associated with alcoholism and involvement of the heart, vascular, and nervous system. Although these conditions may appear to be two different disorders, they are generally considered to be different stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke's encephalopathy represents the "acute" phase and Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome represents the "chronic" phase.[1]
Last updated: 10/20/2011

What are the signs and symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

The symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include mental confusion, vision problems (including double vision, abnormal eye movements, and eyelid drooping), inability to think clearly, coma, hypothermia, hypotension, and loss of muscle coordination (ataxia). The symptoms of Korsakoff's amnesia include loss of memory, inability to form new memories, making of stories (confabulation), seeing or hearing things that are not really there (hallucinations), disorientation, and vision impairment. The main features of Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome are impairments in acquiring new information or establishing new memories, and in retrieving previous memories.[1][2]
Last updated: 10/20/2011

How might Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome be treated?

The goals of treatment are to control symptoms as much as possible and to prevent progression of the disorder. Some people may need to be hospitalization initially to control the symptoms.[2]

Treatment involves replacement of thiamine and providing proper nutrition and hydration.[1][3] Intravenous thiamine is the treatment of choice. After the initial dose, daily doses of thiamine are usually recommended. Supplementation of electrolytes, particularly magnesium and potassium (often low in people with alcoholism), may be required in addition to thiamine. In those who are chronically malnourished, the remainder of the B vitamins also should be supplemented. Supplementation can be tapered as the patient resumes normal intake and shows improvement.[3]

Because long-term alcohol use is the most common cause for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, avoiding alcohol provides the best chance for recovery. Referral to an alcohol recovery program should be part of the treatment regimen.[3]
Due to difficulties with movement, patients should be provided with assistance when walking during the initial phase of treatment. Patients may require physical therapy to assist with movement. Walking difficulties may be permanent, depending on the severity at initial presentation and the timeliness of therapy.[3]
Last updated: 10/20/2011

What is the prognosis for those with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

Most symptoms (such as uncoordinated movement and vision difficulties) can be reversed if detected and treated promptly. However, improvement in memory function and cognitive skills may be slow and, usually, incomplete. Without treatment, these disorders can be disabling and life-threatening.[1][2] There may be a need for additional services if the loss of cognitive skills is severe.[2]
Last updated: 10/20/2011