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What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Alcohol has a direct adverse effect on the brain; unfortunately, the problems that occur, like Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, are not well known. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 80% of patients with the condition do not receive a diagnosis.

The syndrome is not caused only by alcohol use disorders but is common in people with specific vitamin deficiencies and long-term alcohol consumption. Alcohol has an adverse negative effect on the brain, and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is another condition connected to alcohol abuse. 

Defining Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

One name for two conditions that often co-occur, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and Wernicke encephalopathy, can result from insufficient levels of B1 or thiamine. Some researchers believe that they are the same disease at different levels.

When the brain and central nervous system do not get enough vitamin B1, the brain cannot turn sugar into energy to perform efficiently. Wernicke encephalopathy can occur suddenly, needing immediate treatment. Korsakoff syndrome occurs at a slower pace, damaging the part of the brain that drives memory.

Sometimes referred to negatively as wet brain, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome results from poor nutrition and thiamine deficiency tied to long-term heavy alcohol usage. If treatment is not immediate, irreversible confusion, problems with muscle coordination, and hallucinations can ensue. There are two distinct levels of the condition.

The initial part of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This severe but temporary condition causes confusion, loss of muscle control, and abnormal eye movements with vision problems.

Secondly, Korsakoff’s psychosis is a chronic condition presenting significant learning impairments and affects the ability to function normally. Thus, only 1 to 2% of the general population develops this syndrome, but 12 to 14% of those with an alcohol use disorder develop it.

Alcoholism and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Long-term alcohol consumption can cause a lack of vitamin B1 to be absorbed, used, and stored by the body. Another unfortunate truth about those with an alcohol use disorder is many have an inferior diet and could be suffering from a high level of malnutrition. An essential nutrient, thiamine absorption occurs through diet.

Additionally, a deficiency of thiamine can cause brain, nerve, and heart damage. Research has determined that in the US, alcohol misuse is the leading cause of the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Malabsorption is a common problem for those with an alcohol use disorder. Thiamine flows to the body’s tissues from the gastrointestinal tract, but those who chronically use alcohol have inflammation that inhibits absorption.

Therefore, excessive alcohol consumption causes difficulties in processing and utilizing thiamine in the body’s cells. Without thiamine, enzymes playing essential roles in processing and converting sugar into energy and creating neurotransmitters in the brain are at a disadvantage. 

Signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Individuals with dietary deficiencies, prolonged vomiting, eating disorders, and undergoing chemotherapy can also develop Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Chronic alcohol use can impair the absorption of thiamine in the intestine and decrease stored levels of thiamine in the liver.

When thiamine levels drop too low, it directly affects brain cells. The cerebellum, mammillary bodies, thalamus, hypothalamus, and brainstem are all areas of the brain affected. 

The areas of the brain affected by thiamine deficiency are responsible for the following actions:

  • Balance and coordination
  • Reflexes
  • Cognition and problem-solving skills
  • Memory and attention span
  • Body temperature
  • Appetite
  • Emotions
  • Blood pressure 
  • Sleep

Signs and symptoms of the initial phase of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are balance and movement problems. For example, some include physical symptoms include leg tremors, slow and unsteady gait, and arm and leg weakness. Confusion, disorientation, and eye problems such as double vision can occur.

It affects the heart and blood vessels, drowsiness, fainting, and lethargy present with fast heartbeat and low blood pressure. Without immediate treatment, Korsakoff Syndrome follows as the signs of Wernicke encephalopathy disappear. Short-term memory loss is the most significant symptom, making it challenging to learn new things or make new memories.

Hallucinations, difficulty choosing vocabulary, processing information, and long-term memory loss follow. Some signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome are irreversible. 

Effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

The long-term physical and mental dysfunction from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can lead to reduced consciousness, coma, and death. The nerves that control the eyes can cause paralysis, involuntary eye movements, drooping eyelids, and challenges in following objects can occur.

In severe cases, people experiencing this syndrome without proper treatment can lose the ability to walk. Others may struggle with coordination and walk with a slight stagger. Another adverse effect is that 80 to 90% of people with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and an alcohol use disorder develop Korsakoff’s psychosis.

A severe form of neuropsychiatric dementia, this unfortunate condition can occur without immediate treatment. This form of psychosis is sometimes called alcohol amnestic disorder or alcoholic dementia. This psychosis includes symptoms such as amnesia, hallucinations, changes in behavior, memory issues, and difficulty forming new memories. 

Is It Reversible?

Korsakoff’s psychosis is not reversible in many severe cases because of damage to the brain. However, Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome may be reversible if treatment begins soon enough. It is rare, however, that anyone makes a full recovery. Thiamine therapy given immediately can show improvement after 5 to 12 days of treatment. 

How Detox and Treatment Help

Finding a professional treatment center familiar with this syndrome is essential to the immediate and proper treatment of Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome. Treatment professionals intravenously administer thiamine (Vitamine B1) through the hand or arm. These infusions may occur every day for an extended period. Physical therapy may have to take place if balance or gait continues to show adverse effects. 

Professional detox from alcohol in a medically monitored program is essential for continued improvement. Medication-assisted treatment emphasizing a potent thiamine supplementation is critical to a successful detox and recovery from WKS. Withdrawal from a long-term alcohol use disorder is challenging to manage. Medication can lessen the severity of the withdrawal symptoms to prevent relapse. 

Get the Treatment You Deserve for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Long-term alcohol use disorders can prove challenging to detox, but we provide qualified professionals when the added difficulty of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome occurs. Tennessee Valley Recovery offers compassionate expertise in detox from long-term alcohol use. The center provides a wide range of treatment options to meet each patient’s individual needs.

Contact Tennessee Valley Recovery today for more information.