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Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: causes and symptoms

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: causes and symptoms

June 24, 2021

The functioning of memory in human beings is one of the most complex and difficult aspects to study in the field of psychology and cognitive sciences.

However, there are a number of disorders that serve to help better understand the fundamentals of memory. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is one of them.

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Summarizing, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder due to a lack of vitamin B1 (also called Thiamin). This syndrome can also be understood as the union of two different mental disorders: the Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff's syndrome.


We will know what each one of these pathologies consists of, as well as their main symptoms and some possible forms of treatment.

Wernicke encephalopathy

It is a neurological disease caused by the lack of thiamine. Its symptoms have to do with the lack of coordination when performing the movements necessary to walk (ataxia), the problems when moving the eyes and the appearance of a state of constant confusion.

Korsakoff syndrome

In Korsakoff Syndrome, or Psychosis of Korsakoff, its symptoms are more developed with memory problems, to the point where this syndrome is usually included in the types of amnesia.


Thus, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a symptom picture that encompasses the problems that appear both in Wernicke's Enelopathy and those associated with Korsakoff's Psychosis. While the symptoms of the first manifest in an acute symptomatic peak, those of Korsakoff Syndrome are chronic .

The spectrum of symptoms related to Korsakoff Syndrome usually appears as the symptoms of Wernicke's Encephalopathy disappear.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

The diagnosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can only be made by specialists with medical training. However, it's good recognize the main symptoms why these experts are guided when it comes to detecting the syndrome, to know if a person should visit the doctor or not.

The main symptoms related to Wernicke encephalopathy are these:


  • The appearance of tremors in the legs and difficulties in coordinating the movements necessary to walk.
  • The appearance of strange eye movements that make it look bad: nystagmus, double vision, etc.
  • A state of confusion or apathy appears that can not be explained in any other way than for neurological damage.

The symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome They have to do more with memory, and these are:

  • Antegrade amnesia , that is, inability to form new memories from the moment in which the syndrome appears. Almost everything that is experienced is forgotten shortly after having been lived.
  • Retrograde amnesia , that is, inability or serious difficulties to remember some important episodes of the past.
  • Fabulation , that is, invention of history to "fill in" those gaps that are not remembered, usually unconsciously.

The causes of this syndrome

Lack of vitamin B1 related to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome It is usually associated with the abusive consumption of alcoholic beverages , but it can also be due to a failure in the absorption of nutrients from what is ingested.

While Wernicke's encephalopathy causes damage to the thalamus and the hypothalamus (the two large structures of an area of ​​the brain called the diencephalon), Korsakoff syndrome is caused by damage in more distributed areas related to memory in both the memorization of information as in the recovery of memories.

Treatment of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Currently, the Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome has no cure, so the treatment of this is aimed at making the symptom picture not worse and its effects can be controlled as much as possible to make the quality of life of the person worse the minimum.

The treatments, which must always be directed by a specialist, usually address the syndrome through the prevention of continued drinking , the improvement of the person's eating habits, the individual or supportive psychological attention, and the injection of vitamin B1.

The symptoms that can remit more easily are those that have to do with motor coordination and eye movement, but those that have to do with cognitive abilities do not usually improve and, if not treated properly, can get worse until carrying to coma and death.


Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome ¦ Treatment and Symptoms (June 2021).


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