Alcohol is linked to the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder resulting from thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is actually a two-stage brain disorder in which Karsakoff syndrome (also known as Korsakoff psychosis) develops due to permanent brain damage as symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy wane.

Symptoms

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome cannot be diagnosed while a patient is in withdrawal, or experiencing medical complications from their alcohol abuse. A patient must be sober and still experiencing symptoms to be diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Vision changes (back and forth eye movements, double vision, eyelid drooping)
  • Short-term memory problems, amnesia
  • Agitation
  • Loss of interest, apathy
  • Language impairment
  • Inability to perform complex motor tasks due to fine motor function degradation
  • Weakness in limbs
In the acute phase of the syndrome (shortly after the syndrome develops), symptoms also include skin changes and a swollen, reddened tongue.

Korsakoff syndrome: Also referred to as Korsakoff psychosis, Korsakoff syndrome tends to develop after Wernicke's symptoms go away. This syndrome is a result of damage to the parts of the brain associated with memory. Symptoms of Krosakoff syndrome include:

  • Difficulty forming new memories
  • Mild to severe loss of memory
  • Making up stories or words to compensate for memory loss (confabulation)
  • Hallucinations

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may also be present during either of these stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. The effect of alcohol abuse on the body can produce several additional psychological and physical signs, detected by doctors or family members and often including:

  • Apathy
  • Irritability
  • Resistive behavior
  • Problems with sensations in extremities
  • Trouble with balance

Causes

Alcohol use can be a risk factor in developing any type of dementia. A recent report from the BBC showed that even moderate alcohol consumption placed people at greater risk for developing dementia.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is the combination of two conditions with separate stages: Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome. Both are caused by damaged parts of the brain due to a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine). Alcoholics are prone to developing this condition because they usually have poor nutrition, and a decreased ability to properly absorb nutrients. Alcoholism can lead to severe deficiencies in thiamine, which helps the brain process and produce energy from sugar. Without thiamine, the brain cannot create enough energy to sustain itself, leading to serious damage and memory loss, among other symptoms. This condition has also been observed in people who lacked diets with thiamine, but were not alcoholics.

Treatment

Unfortunately, doctors and researchers have found that much of the damage wrought by alcohol abuse is permanent; making it very difficult to treat Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. People with alcohol-related dementias improve their quality of life at half the rate of those with Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia.

Experts recommend abstaining from alcohol as a large part of treating these conditions. A second, equally important component, is maintaining a healthy, balanced, nutritional diet to slow the progression of alcohol related dementias. Alcoholics Anonymous and other similar support groups can help those changing the role of alcohol in their lives.

If you have any concerns about you or your loved one's alcohol use and change in behavior, please contact your doctor or a treatment specialist.