Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a syndrome due to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, commonly found in chronic alcoholism. This primarily alcohol-induced amnestic disorder results in necrotic lesions to the mammillary bodies, thalamus, and brainstem. The syndrome itself consists of 2 components: Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE), and Korsakoff’s amnesia (KA), hence the combined name Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Wernicke's vs. Korsakoff's

Course Symptoms Notes
Wernicke's Encephalopathy (WE) Acute, but reversible The classic triad of:
• Eye abnormalities (nystagmus, oculomotor paralysis, paralysis of conjugate gaze), CN VI palsy AKA lateral gaze palsy (lateral rectus)
• Ataxia of stance and gait
• Mental status changes, including withdrawal, confusion, retro/anterograde amnesia
Korsakoff's Syndrome/Amnesia (KS) Chronic and only 20% of cases are reversible with treatment Anterograde amnesia and confabulations Cannot occur during an acute delirium or dementia and must persist beyond usual duration of intoxication or withdrawal management

Classically, Korsakoff's syndrome presents after an episode of Wernicke's encephalopathy though this is not always the case.

WKS is a clinical diagnosis, but neuroimaging findings may help confirm the diagnosis.

WKS is caused by a B1 thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is a cofactor in the decarboxylation of pyruvate. The absence of vitamin B one for this reaction leads to damage to the limbic system, specifically the mammillary bodies and anterior/medial thalamus.

In patients with chronic alcoholism with only an ataxic gait and stance found on physical exam, and no other neurological findings, has alcoholic cerebellar degeneration (midline cerebellar degeneration).

  • CBC, lytes, Cr
  • GGT - indicator of acute liver injury from EtOH use, for detecting people drinking > 4 drinks/day
    • AST > ALT x 3 (in EtOH hepatitis)
    • AST/ALT ratio also > 2
  • INR
  • B12 and thiamine
  • MRI brain may show mammillary body atrophy, volume loss in the thalamus, volume loss in the corpus callosum.

Although thiamine deficiency often occurs in the context of alcohol use disorders, it can also occur in eating disorders, malnutrition, hyperemesis gravidarum, chronic vomiting, extreme dieting, and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Treatment is with preventative therapy. If the Korsakoff Syndrome has already occurred, the chance of recovery is slim.

  • Low risk patients: Thiamine 100mg TID should be prescribed as ongoing supplementary therapy in alcohol use disorder patients identified as at risk for thiamine deficiency.[1]
  • High-risk or patients:
    • 200mg IV thiamine x 3 days, followed by oral supplementation
  • Suspected Wernicke’s encephalopathy:
    • Thiamine 100mg IM/IV x 3 days (can be as high as 500mg TID),[2] then 300mg PO x 3-12 months
    • Don’t forget to give fluids as well!