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NINDS Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Information Page


Synonym(s):  Korsakoff's Amnesic Syndrome, Cerebral Beriberi


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What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Wernicke's encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disorder caused by the lack of thiamine (vitamin B1). It may result from alcohol abuse, dietary deficiencies, prolonged vomiting, eating disorders, or the effects of chemotherapy. B1 deficiency causes damage to the brain's thalamus and hypothalamus. Symptoms include mental confusion, vision problems, coma, hypothermia, low blood pressure, and lack of muscle coordination (ataxia). Korsakoff syndrome (also called Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome) is a memory disorder that results from vitamin B1 deficiency and is associated with alcoholism. Korsakoff's syndrome damages nerve cells and supporting cells in the brain and spinal cord, as well as the part of the brain involved with memory. Symptoms include amnesia, tremor, coma, disorientation, and vision problems, The disorder's main features are problems in acquiring new information or establishing new memories, and in retrieving previous memories. Although Wernicke's and Korsakoff's are related disorders, some scientists believe them to be different stages of the same disorder, which is called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke's encephalopathy represents the "acute" phase of the disorder and Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome represents the disorder progressing to a "chronic" or long-lasting stage.

Is there any treatment?

Treatment involves replacement of thiamine and providing proper nutrition and hydration. In some cases, drug therapy is also recommended.Stopping alcohol use may prevent further nerve and brain damage. In individuals with Wernicke's encephalopathy, it is very important to start thiamine replacement before beginning nutritional replenishment.

What is the prognosis?

Most symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy can be reversed if detected and treated promptly and completely. Stopping alcohol use may prevent further nerve and brain damage. However, improvement in memory function is slow and, usually, incomplete. Without treatment, these disorders can be disabling and life-threatening.

What research is being done?

The mission of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease. The NINDS supports research on neurological disorders such as Wernicke's encephalopathy, Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, to expand our understanding of the functional changes of the diseases and ways to treat them..One areas of research is studying how exercise can improve cognitive functioning based on modulation of certain nerve cells in a rodent model of amnesia produced by by thiamine deficiency. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also supports research on these disorders.

NIH Patient Recruitment for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Clinical Trials

Organizations

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Family Caregiver Alliance/ National Center on Caregiving
785 Market St.
Suite 750
San Francisco, CA 94103
info@caregiver.org
http://www.caregiver.org
Tel: 415-434-3388; 800-445-8106
Fax: 415-434-3508

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
5635 Fishers Lane, MSC 9304
Bethesda, MD 20892-9304
http://www.niaaa.nih.gov
Tel: 301-443-3860



Prepared by:
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892



NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient's medical history.

All NINDS-prepared information is in the public domain and may be freely copied. Credit to the NINDS or the NIH is appreciated.

Last Modified February 3, 2016