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What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome & How is it Treated?

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a pathological condition of the brain which is basically caused by deficiency of vitamin B1. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is actually a combination of two conditions which occur in tandem with Wernicke Encephalopathy occurring first. People with this disorder tend to have bleeding in the lower portions of the brain, which control the nervous and the endocrine systems, and presents with symptoms like difficulty with vision, balance, and coordination.

The second condition of the Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is the Korsakoff Psychosis which tends to follow immediately after the symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy if it is not treated immediately and effectively. Korsakoff Psychosis is as a result of significant brain damage and affects the memory of the affected individual.

The main cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is chronic alcoholism, although unhealthy diet and certain medical conditions may also cause Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Once an individual presents with the symptoms consistent with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and has a history of chronic alcoholism then a simple test to check the levels of vitamin B1 will confirm the diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

The most preferred treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is supplementation of vitamin B1. This will be given intravenously. If treatment is given on time then the patient can be successfully treated from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome? 

What are the Causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

As stated, the main cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is chronic alcoholism. Some of the lesser known causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome are certain condition which impairs the ability of the body to absorb vitamin B1 resulting in deficiency of this vitamin.

This can be caused by a gastric bypass surgery which limits the food that an individual can eat and thus restricts the intake of vitamin B1. Colon cancer may also limit eating as a result of pain and certain eating disorders may also cause an individual a deficiency of vitamin B1.

What are the Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

As stated, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a combination of two disorders which are the Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Psychosis. The symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy occur first and include:

  • Double vision
  • Upper eyelid ptosis
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Confusion

The condition then progresses to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome with the symptoms including:

  • Inability to recall events that happened after the onset of the disease
  • Difficulty with understanding and interpreting information
  • Difficulty making a sensible sentence
  • Hallucinations

How is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Diagnosed?

The symptoms experienced by an individual with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome are good enough to confirm the diagnosis. Additionally, if the patient has a history of alcohol abuse then it will further pinpoint towards a diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Once a diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is suspected based on the history and the symptoms exhibited by the patient, then the physician may order for vitamin B1 levels which will obviously be low and thus will confirm the diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Additionally, advanced radiological studies in the form of CT scan and MRI of the brain may be done to look for abnormalities specific for the condition which may further help in confirming the diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

How is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Treated?

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is an emergent condition and the treatment needs to begin as soon as a diagnosis is made. Immediate treatment will stop further progression of the disease process and even reverse some of the neurological abnormalities caused by Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

The treatment usually begins in an inpatient setting with close monitoring of the patient and checking whether the food that the patient is eating is being absorbed well or not. This will be followed by administration of vitamin B1 which will be given intravenously. Oral vitamin B1 may also be given.

This will be followed by treatment for alcoholism which will constitute of extensive counseling sessions and therapy along with medications. The withdrawal symptoms of alcohol may be treated as they appear as a result of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

What is the Prognosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

The overall prognosis of an individual with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome depends on the severity of the disease and the extent to which it has progressed.

If the diagnosis is made early and the treatment is started immediately then the prognosis for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is quite good and many of the neurological abnormalities may be reversed provided the patient stays away from alcohol and eats a balanced diet rich in vitamin B1.

In case if the condition is left untreated then the condition progresses where it may lead to potentially serious complications compromising the overall prognosis of the patient from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.


  1. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome” – MedlinePlus Link: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000771.htm
  2. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome” – National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Link: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome
  3. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome” – StatPearls Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430823/
  4. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: A Forgotten Disease” – Alcohol Research & Health Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6721034/
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:September 6, 2023

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