Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome

A brain disorder caused by severe vitamin B1 deficiency, usually the result of long-term alcohol abuse

  • More common over the age of 45
  • More common in males
  • Long-term alcohol abuse is a risk factor
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome is a rare disorder of the brain, causing dementia, abnormal eye movements, and an abnormal gait. The condition develops rapidly and is due to a severe deficiency of vitamin B1. It is a medical emergency. If untreated, coma and death may occur. About 2 in 10 individuals with the disorder die within 5 days. Vitamin B1 deficiency is usually caused by many years of severe alcohol abuse, but rarely it may be due to extreme malnutrition or starvation. The disorder is most common in people over the age of 45 and affects more men than women.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may start gradually or suddenly, sometimes after heavy drinking, and are easily mistaken for drunkenness. They include the following:

  • Abnormal movements of the eyes, which often result in double vision.

  • Unsteadiness when walking.

  • Confusion and restlessness.

Unless the individual is given urgent treatment, he or she will develop severe memory loss, become drowsy, go into a coma, and eventually die.

What might be done?

A person with Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome needs immediate admission to hospital for intravenous treatment with high-dose vitamin B1. After treatment, many of the symptoms may be reversed within days, but memory loss may persist. If untreated, the disorder is fatal.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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