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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a two-stage brain disorder caused by a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B-1). Thiamine helps brain cells produce energy from sugar. When levels of the vitamin are too low, cells are unable to generate enough energy to function properly.

Wernicke encephalopathy is the first, acute phase and Korsakoff psychosis is the long-lasting, chronic stage. The most common cause is alcoholism, but the syndrome can also be associated with AIDS, cancers that have spread through the body, very high levels of thyroid hormone, and certain other conditions.


  • Confusion, permanent gaps in memory and problems with learning new information.
  • Individuals may have a tendency to "confabulate," or make up information they can't remember; they are not "lying,” but may actually believe the invented explanation.
  • Unsteadiness, muscle weakness and lack of coordination.
  • Recent research suggests a genetic variation called APOE-e4 may be associated with a higher risk of Wernicke-Korsakoff in individuals who drink heavily. APOEe4 is also linked to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.


  • If the condition is caught early and drinking stops, treatment with high-dose thiamine may reverse some, but usually not all, of the damage.
  • In later stages, damage is more severe and does not respond to treatment.



Family Caregiver Alliance: Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
The Family Caregiver Alliance is a nonprofit organization offering national, state and local programs and information resources to support and sustain caregivers providing long-term care at home.

Medline Plus: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
Medline Plus is a consumer health information service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health (NIH). This Medline Plus encyclopedia article provides basic information about symptoms, causes and treatment of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

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