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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

(Wernicke-Korsakoff's Syndrome)

By

Juebin Huang

, MD, PhD, Department of Neurology, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020
Click here for the Professional Version

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is an unusual form of amnesia that combines two disorders: an acute confusional state (Wernicke encephalopathy) and a type of long-term amnesia called Korsakoff syndrome. Korsakoff syndrome develops in about 80% of people with untreated Wernicke encephalopathy.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Korsakoff syndrome Korsakoff Psychosis Korsakoff psychosis is a complication of Wernicke encephalopathy and causes memory loss for recent events, confusion, and behavioral changes. (See also Drug Use and Abuse.) Korsakoff psychosis... read more may initially cause severe memory loss for recent events. Memory of more distant past events seems to be less impaired. Thus, people may be able to interact socially and converse coherently even though they cannot remember anything that happened in the preceding few days, months, or years or even in the preceding few minutes. They tend to make things up (confabulate) rather than admit that they cannot remember. Because they cannot remember things they have recently done, they may, for example, never tire of reading a favorite magazine over and over again.

Diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

  • A doctor's evaluation

Doctors suspect Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome in people who have the characteristic symptoms and who have a disorder that can cause this syndrome (such as undernutrition or a thiamin deficiency), especially if they also abuse alcohol.

Tests, such as blood tests to measure blood sugar and electrolyte levels, a complete blood cell count, liver function tests, and imaging, are usually done to rule out other causes. Sometimes doctors measure the thiamin level in blood.

Treatment of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

  • Thiamin and fluids given intravenously

Treatment consists of thiamin and fluids given intravenously. Such treatment can correct Wernicke encephalopathy, although recovery is usually incomplete. Korsakoff syndrome does not resolve.

If untreated, Wernicke encephalopathy can be fatal, but death rarely results in developed countries.

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