What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) develops if a person lacks vitamin B1 or thiamine, which is an essential nutrient that helps the brain turn sugar into energy. WKS is a condition that represents two different conditions occurring simultaneously: Wernicke’s disease (WD) and Korsakoff syndrome. Symptoms for Wernicke’s disease (WD) usually reveal first. Then, it develops into Korsakoff’s syndrome.

Individually, Wernicke’s disease (WD) or also known as Wernicke encephalopathy, causes damage to the thalamus and hypothalamus located in the lower part of the brain. On the other hand, Korsakoff psychosis harms parts of the brain associated with memory.

What causes Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Alcoholism is the number one cause of WKS. It hampers Vitamin B1 storage and absorption in the body. Most individuals with alcohol use disorder suffer from Vitamin B1 deficiency.

Other less common causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are health conditions that restrict nutrient absorption, such as:

  • Gastric cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Gastric bypass surgery
  • Eating disorders
  • Kidney dialysis
  • AIDS

Who is at risk

Men with poor diet and lifestyle have a higher risk of WKS than women. Also, it typically develops in people between 30 to 70 years old. Overall, WKS is avoidable by eliminating alcohol and making changes in the diet.

If left untreated, the possibility of death is high. In most instances, people with WKS pass away due to blood poisoning, lung problems, or irreparable brain damage.


Symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff's syndrome differ. Wernicke encephalopathy is the first to develop, and some signs include confusion, eye abnormalities, and the inability to control body movements or ataxia.

Meanwhile, Korsakoff's syndrome will exhibit symptoms related to memory loss. Onset signs of Korsakoff syndrome start when symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy begin to disappear.

Together, they form the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, and the symptoms are:

  • Double vision, abnormal eye movements, and eyelid drooping
  • Muscle incoordination
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion and violent behavior
  • Amnesia
  • Confabulation
  • Difficulty understanding meaning of words
  • Hallucinations


Replacement therapy or receiving vitamin B1 through an intravenous line (IV) is a standard treatment for people with WKS. This can control symptoms and prevent the condition from getting worse. Simply eating foods rich in B1 is also another option.

The treatment can be very effective if the person receives early attention, preferably before any irrevocable damage happens. The person may have to stay in a hospital for further monitoring or if special care is necessary. Some adverse reactions to the treatment may include insomnia, mood swings, and withdrawal symptoms.

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