Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

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What is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a neurological disorder caused by the lack of thiamine (vitamin B1). The disorder includes Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff amnesic syndrome which are not different conditions but different stages of the same disease (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. The disorder's main features are problems in acquiring new information or establishing new memories, and in retrieving previous memories.

Wernicke's encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disorder caused by the lack of vitamin B1. It may result from:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Dietary deficiencies
  • Prolonged vomiting
  • Eating disorders
  • 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
  • Lack of muscle coordination (ataxia)

Korsakoff syndrome (also known as 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
  • Vision problems

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

Most symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy can be reversed if detected and treated promptly and completely. However, improvement in memory function is slow and, usually, incomplete. Without treatment, these disorders can be disabling and life-threatening.

Learn About Clinical Trials
Clinical trials are studies that allow us to learn more about disorders and improve care. They can help connect patients with new and upcoming treatment options.

How can I or my loved one help improve care for people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

Consider participating in a clinical trial so clinicians and scientists can learn more about Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and related disorders. Clinical research uses human volunteers to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease.

All types of volunteers are needed—those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—of all different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that study results apply to as many people as possible, and that treatments will be safe and effective for everyone who will use them.

For information about participating in clinical research visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. Learn about clinical trials currently looking for people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome at Clinicaltrials.gov.

Where can I find more information about Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

The following organizations and resources help people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and their families, friends, and caregivers:

Family Caregiver Alliance/National Center on Caregiving
Phone: 415-434-3388 or 800-445-8106


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
Phone: 301-443-3860

Order publications from the NINDS Catalog
The NINDS Publication Catalog offers printed materials on neurological disorders for patients, health professionals, and the general public. All materials are free of charge, and a downloadable PDF version is also available for most publications.