What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Dee S.
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 15 January 2020
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Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a relatively rare disorder that affects the brain, causing memory problems, confusion, and muscle weakness. It can be broken down into two phases: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis. Although the disorder, as a whole, is usually linked to a deficiency of thiamine, or B1, due to alcoholism, it may also be related to other medical conditions, such as cancer, AIDS, and high thyroid levels. It is also known by the medical community as cerebral beriberi or alcoholic encephalopathy and by the non-medical community as wet brain. This disorder typically affects individuals who are over the age of 40, and people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome have little chance of a full recovery, even after they undergo treatment.

Usually, people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome do not experience both phases of the condition at the same time. In most cases, a person develops Wernicke encephalopathy first. Researchers have determined that during this phase of the condition, the hypothalamus and the thalamus of the brain are harmed. As a result, the person may show signs of memory problems or confusion. In addition, the person may have difficulty looking in a certain direction because the eye muscles that direct such movements may be paralyzed.


The second phase of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, Korsakoff psychosis, has an entirely different set of symptoms from the first phase. For example, an affected individual may not be able to form any new memories, although memories prior to the start of the illness may be quite clear. In addition, the affected individual may use repetitious statements. She may also inadvertently try to create stories to fill in the parts of her memory that she has lost.

Although each phase of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be considered a separate disease, they are usually lumped together. Consequently, there are some general symptoms that can be applied to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome as a whole. For example, many people are apathetic or indifferent to the people and events around them, and they rarely express their emotions. In addition, most affected individuals lose the ability for spontaneity.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may be partially reversed if it is diagnosed early-on. For starters, if the person is an alcoholic, she must stop drinking. Then, the affected individual may be supplemented with thiamine, either through an injection or via a pill. The person may be advised to eat thiamine rich foods as well, such as peas, fortified cereals, and pork. In addition, some Alzheimer’s disease drugs may be recommended to help restore some memory loss.


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