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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 encephalopathy represents the "acute" phase of the disorder and Korsakoff 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 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 amnesic syndrome) is a memory disorder that results from vitamin B1 deficiency and is associated with alcoholism. Korsakoff 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 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 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.

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

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

Content source: Accessed June 29, 2023.

The information in this document is for general educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for personalized professional advice. Although the information was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, MedLink, its representatives, and the providers of the information do not guarantee its accuracy and disclaim responsibility for adverse consequences resulting from its use. For further information, consult a physician and the organization referred to herein.

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