Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and How it Can Affect You

Thiamine, also known as vitamin B-1, is an essential ingredient for healthy functioning of the nervous system and for converting carbohydrates into energy. A shortage of this valuable nutrient results in fatigue, weakness, psychosis, and eventual nerve damage (Beriberi disease).

Although thiamine is found naturally in the foods we eat and used as a fortification in grains and pastas, the number one reason thiamine deficiency is found in America today is from alcohol abuse. Alcohol contains sulfites, which breaks apart thiamine’s chemical structure, making absorption impossible, and therefore useless.

An estimated 80% of alcohol abusers have thiamine deficiency. Left untreated, this deficit can develop into a serious affliction known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

WKS is actually two sets of symptoms that describe the onset of a pervasive, devastating disorder. Wernicke’s encephalopathy materializes as a severe, yet short-lived debilitation, which quickly progresses into the prolonged, often irreversible, Korsakoff psychosis.

If you haven’t told your doctor the honest truth about your alcohol use, they may not be looking for a simple vitamin deficiency as the cause of your difficulties. Yes, supplements are essential to avoiding lasting damage, but it doesn’t fix the problem. Alcohol use must be strictly regulated – failing that, detox and rehab are the only ways to get your life back from the grips of alcoholism.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

Encephalopathy is a general medical term meaning “disease of the brain.” In this case, the damage involves a myriad of nerves in the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system), as well as nerve endings located throughout the body (peripheral nervous system).

Wercicke’s encephalopathy is revealed through:

  • Vision impairment
  • Sluggish pupil reflexes
  • Uneven pupil size (anisocoria)
  • Involuntary eye movement (nystagmus)
  • Eye paralysis (ophthalmoplegia)
  • Mental confusion/ stupor
  • Loss of coordination (ataxia)
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)

Left untreated, Wernicke’s encephalopathy will evolve into Korsakoff’s psychosis, coma, or death.

Korsakoff’s Psychosis

Korsakoff’s psychosis, sometimes referred to as Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome, impairs the heart, blood vessels, and nervous system. Moreover, it is the cognitive and intellectual deterioration that manifests itself as dementia in late-stage alcoholics through:

  • Disorientation
  • Delirium (restlessness, confusion, hallucinations)
  • Attention deficit
  • Inability to learn new skills
  • Memory loss (amnesia)
  • Confabulation

Trouble with memory can take the form of retrograde amnesia (recalling details from the past) or anterograde amnesia (acquiring recent information). Confabulation occurs when individuals attempt to fill in missing memories with fabricated or “borrowed” experiences, believing them to be genuine.

The Symptoms

Individuals can become easily frustrated, agitated, or aggressive. At other times they may appear to be dazed or in a trance-like state. Walking, grasping objects, eating, drinking, or grooming becomes extremely difficult.

Short-term memory is virtually non-existent and confusion sets in easily, but patients can talk in detail about past events or experiences.

It is important to remember that not every alcoholic exhibits all the recognized signs or symptoms of thiamine deficiency. The disease is just as damaging even if only one or two symptoms materialize.

The Effects on the Brain

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome has been linked with weakening or shrinking (atrophy) of certain areas of the brain:

  • Mamillary bodies _ related to processing memories
  • Raphe nuclei _ controls distribution of serotonin
  • Thalamus _ regulates sleep and wakefulness, consciousness, awareness, activity, sensory and motor relays

Critical injury to the thalamus can result in a permanent loss of consciousness (coma).


Treatment with thiamine supplements, adequate nutrition, hydration, and abstinence from alcohol clear up most signs of the deficiency if caught early. Return of memory and cognitive function is at best irregular, and at worst absent altogether. Nearly 25 percent of alcoholics suffer permanent brain damage and require assistance with basic daily living (custodial care) due to lack of treatment.

Rehab at The Canyon

The Canyon’s qualified medical staff is experienced in recognizing the symptoms of thiamine deficiency and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome in clients. Essential vitamins, supplements, nutrition, and counseling services are provided during detox and throughout the treatment process to renew vitality and balance, creating the foundations upon which to build a solid addiction-free lifestyle.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, call us today to find out how we can help.