7.9 What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome? – Symptoms & Treatment

Jan 14, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch7 Memory Models & Disorders

Did you know that Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is most commonly caused by the extended and heavy use of alcohol? Learn more about Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome from this lesson and then test your knowledge with a quiz.


Karen is a 29-year-old bartender who likes to drink alcohol. Every night for the past six years, Karen has consumed at least one pint of hard liquor and a few beers. Over time, Karen begins to notice some changes in her vision. Her eyes are shaky and her eyelids start to droop. She becomes confused, even when doing familiar tasks, and she has trouble balancing. Her walk, which was once graceful, is now difficult and looks different. Karen sees her doctor, who diagnoses Karen with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.


Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a neurological condition that is caused by a lack of vitamin B-1, or thiamine. Thiamine helps our body metabolize glucose used to give the brain energy. When there is not enough thiamine, our brains do not get enough energy to function properly. The hypothalamus (which controls our growth, the temperature of our bodies, appetite, emotional response, metabolism, and hormones) is one specific area of the brain that suffers as a result. Another part of the brain that is affect is the mammillary bodies, which are located at the base of the brain and play a vital role in memory functions.

The main cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is prolonged, heavy alcohol use, such as in Karen’s case. Alcohol causes a deficiency in thiamine by blocking your body’s ability to absorb thiamine, which then leads to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can also occur if you don’t get enough thiamine in your diet or if your body is not able to absorb food correctly, as sometimes occurs in individuals who have had a chronic illness, colon cancer, eating disorders, or gastric bypass surgery.


Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is actually two separate illnesses that tend to afflict a person during the same period of time. Both conditions are the result brain damage caused by a severe thiamine deficiency. Wernicke’s encephalopathy, also known as Wernicke’s disease usually occurs first. It causes the lower areas of the brain to bleed, including the hypothalamus. This damages the brain and produces symptoms such as confusion, decreased mental activity, and problems with muscle coordination and vision. These symptoms are similar to the ones Karen has. If Wernicke’s disease is not treated properly and caught early, Korsakoff syndrome may develop.

As the symptoms associated with Wernicke’s disease disappear, lasting damage in the memory regions of the brain, Korsakoff syndrome (or psychosis), is evident. Symptoms include memory loss, not being able to create new memories, hallucinations, mental confusion, impairment in intellect, and creating false stories.


The objective of treatment is to reduce symptoms and to make sure that the syndrome does not get worse. Treatment usually involves administering thiamine. Though thiamine can reduce the confusion, vision, and muscle coordination issues, it cannot improve the memory loss or the intellectual problems associated with Korsakoff psychosis.

Individuals with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are recommended to quit drinking alcohol to avoid further damage to the brain and nerves. Eating a healthy diet can also help.

Lesson Summary

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by a vitamin B-1 deficiency, usually the result of extended and heavy use of alcohol. Symptoms include hallucinations, muscle coordination and vision problems, mental confusion, and memory loss. Treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome includes vitamin B-1 administration, discontinuing alcohol use, and maintaining a healthy diet.

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