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Korsakoff’s Syndrome

(Cerebral Beriberi; Korsakoff’s Amnesic Syndrome; Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome)

Korsakoff’s syndrome – Definition

Korsakoff’s syndrome is a memory disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine). It mainly affects short-term memory. A related disorder, Wernicke’s syndrome, often occurs with Korsakoff’s syndrome. Because they often occur together, the range of symptoms caused by the two diseases is often called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Korsakoff’s syndrome – Causes

Thiamine is necessary for memory and other brain functions. The daily requirement of thiamine is 1-3 milligrams per day. This syndrome is found in people with:

  • Alcoholism
  • Eating disorders
  • Radical dieting
  • Previous obesity surgery

People are at an increased risk if they have:

  • Dialysis
  • Long-term intravenous nutrition
  • Markedly decreased food intake (accompanied by nausea/vomiting) due to chemotherapy/cancer
  • Chronic disease, such as AIDS

In the US, the most common cause of thiamine deficiency is alcoholism. People who drink a lot of alcohol often replace food with alcohol. As a result, they take in fewer vitamins, leading to deficiencies. In addition, alcohol increases the body’s need for B vitamins while interfering with the ability to absorb, store, and use the nutrients.

Not all alcoholics get Korsakoff’s syndrome. A genetic predisposition may make some people more susceptible. Age also appears to be a risk factor for developing Korsakoff’s syndrome. Alcoholics of more advanced age are more susceptible to developing the disorder. The direct effects of alcohol on nerves in the brain may also contribute.

Korsakoff’s syndrome – Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing Korsakoff’s syndrome:

  • Alcoholism
  • Genetic susceptibility
  • Advanced age
  • Persistent vomiting leading to malnutrition
  • Conditions or procedures (eg, obesity surgery) that may lead to poor food intake or absorption of nutrients

Korsakoff’s syndrome – Symptoms

The main symptoms of the related disorder, Wernicke’s syndrome, often occur first. They include:

  • Difficulty with walking and balance (ataxia)
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Double vision
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Blindness

The main symptom of Korsakoff’s syndrome is severe memory problems. This is most notable with recent events and new information. Often, people with this condition do not know the date or day. However, long-term memory and overall intelligence usually remain intact. To fill in the gaps in recent memory, patients tend to make up information that fits with the situation. This is called confabulation.

Unlike people with other memory deficiencies, like Alzheimer’s disease, individuals with Korsakoff’s syndrome seem unaware of their problem. They also do not typically get worried or concerned when it is pointed out. They also tend to develop emotional changes, including blandness and little or no response to events around them.

Korsakoff’s syndrome – Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. Your mental function will be assessed. Testing your ability to learn new information most likely will show if you have this condition. If you are an alcoholic and/or have Wernicke’s syndrome, Korsakoff’s syndrome is seriously considered as the cause of your memory problem.

Korsakoff’s syndrome – Treatment

Treatment involves taking IV thiamine and drinking plenty of fluids right away. Because improvement is slow, you must supplement your diet with oral thiamine for many months (maybe for life). If alcoholism is the cause, you will also need treatment for that condition.

Korsakoff’s syndrome – Prevention

To reduce your risk of developing Korsakoff’s syndrome:

  • Proper diet is key. Foods that are rich in thiamine include: lentils, peas, fortified breakfast cereal, pecans, spinach, oranges, milk, and eggs.
  • Do not drink alcohol or only drink in moderation.
  • If you have a drinking problem, talk to your doctor right way about treatment options.

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