Alcoholism is known for causing multiple physical, emotional and mental health issues. One of the more severe health problems caused by alcoholism is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). Those unfamiliar with this condition may wonder, what is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome? WKS is a syndrome that affects people in stage four alcoholism. It affects several bodily processes including brain function, digestive system and deficiencies within the body.

WKS is brought on by intense alcohol abuse and it causes the body to shut down. WKS is a combination syndrome that involves both Wernicke’s Disease and Korsakoff Syndrome, which are thought to be the two stages in this progressive illness.

  • Wernicke’s Disease (WD): Wernicke’s syndrome is a disorder of the brain that is brought on by thiamine (B1) deficiency. The condition, otherwise known as Wernicke encephalopathy, is a degeneration of the brain, specifically the thalamus and hypothalamus.
  • Korsakoff Syndrome: Another thiamine deficiency caused by alcoholism is Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome impacts the brain cells and spinal cord cells as well as associated functions within the mind and body.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)

The impact of this condition can be catastrophic without treatment. Often by the time someone is facing WKS, there has been a severe progression of the disease of alcoholism and medical intervention is necessary.

  • Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome include:

    • Confusion and disorientation
    • Irritability
    • Psychosis
    • Hearing loss
    • Problems with vision
    • Low blood pressure
    • Coma
    • Memory loss
    • Hyperhidrosis
    • Drowsiness
    • Sleep apnea
    • Lactic acidosis
    • Hypothermia
    • Polyneuropathy
    • Tremors within the body

Memory Issues

People struggling with WKS experience severe memory issues as a result of thiamine deficiency. The challenge posed by this deficiency results in the brain having a limited ability to create new memories or recall memories from the past. This amnesia worsens as the syndrome progresses, and even after treatment, one may not fully recover memory and cognitive function.

Causes of WKS

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is associated with a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1) in the brain. WKS can be brought about within the body in several ways:

  • Alcoholism: Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome caused by alcohol is a deficiency brought on by excessive alcohol use. Alcohol reduces the body’s ability to absorb certain key nutrients, most importantly, vitamin B1 (thiamine). Over time the body is stripped of thiamine which causes the multitude of symptoms of WKS.
  • Gastrointestinal surgery: Another cause of Wernicke’s Disease is abdominal surgery for the removal of cancerous cells. While this is a less-recognized cause of the illness, it sometimes goes undetected and can cause dementia and additional neurological impacts.
  • Eating disorder and nutritional deficiency: People who struggle with eating disorders or those who have other health concerns that prevent adequate nutritional absorption can experience severe nutritional deficiency that can elicit Wernicke’s Disease.

Finding Treatment for WKS

The natural follow up question to all of these factors is, can Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome be treated? Fortunately, the answer is yes. WKS can be treated, and if detected early enough it can be reversed. Some of the symptoms, such as memory recall issues may not be entirely repaired, but the majority of symptoms can be reversed with the treatment of thiamine supplementation, first intravenously and then with oral supplements.