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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and How it Can Affect You

  • - Alcohol related dementia - Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
  • Oct 30, 2011
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Tags: | confusion | dementia | hallucinations | korsakoff syndrome |

Chronic alcohol abuse destroys a person’s body, but perhaps one of the most devastating effects of alcohol abuse is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Also known as “wet brain,” Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a severe mental disorder that occurs when malnutrition creates a thiamin deficiency. It is the ultimate and tragic consequence of years of heavy drinking. If caught in the early stages, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be partially reversed through thiamin treatment. Late-stage Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, however, has no effective treatment.

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a combination of two disorders: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome. Both disorders are believed to be two stages of the same condition.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is caused when poor nutrition, specifically low thiamin levels, damages the brain. A lack of thiamin, or vitamin B1, is common among alcoholics and can occur through liver damage (which affects thiamin processing), intestinal damage (which inhibits nutrient absorption) and poor eating habits (liquid meals). Heavy drinking inhibits the body from breaking down thiamin to the point that thiamin can’t be absorbed, even if a person eats a well-balanced diet.

Korsakoff syndrome is a type of psychosis that develops as Wernicke’s symptoms go away. It occurs when areas of the brain are so damaged from thiamin deficiency that memory, problem-solving skills and learning abilities are affected.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

People with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome will appear fairly normal at first: they are able to carry on conversations normally, have average intellect, and are able to recognize family members and old friends they met before the onset of the illness. After the onset of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, however, the ability to form new memories is nearly absent. A person with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome will repeat comments or questions several times during a conversation and will forget they already greeted you. This is because they have no memories of any event that occurs after the onset of their illness.

The symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome are:

* Inability to form new memories
* Severe loss of memory
* Loss of muscle coordination (unsteady or uncoordinated walking)
* Making up stories and believing they’re true
* Confusion
* Dementia
* Hallucinations
* Vision changes (double vision, drooping eyelids, abnormal eye movements)

How to Treat Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Patients suffering from the early stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome often respond well to intense thiamin treatment. This treatment consists of large intravenous doses of thiamin followed by supplemental oral doses. Once the patient’s thiamin deficiency has been reversed, they will see substantial improvement in their symptoms of confusion or delirium, vision problems and lack of muscle coordination. Their symptoms of memory loss and intellect loss rarely improve, however, and late-stage patients will not benefit from thiamin or any other known treatment.

Recent studies indicate that drugs used for Alzheimer’s disease treatment, such as donepezil and rivastigmine, may improve memory in individuals with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Improvements are modest, but may help those who do not respond well to thiamin. Some experts say antidepressants which raise serotonin levels may also be useful.

Getting Help for Alcoholism and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Without treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome will get steadily worse can be life threatening. In fact, 20 percent of patients with wet brain die. If you or someone you love has a problem with alcohol and exhibits any sign of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, seek treatment right away.

Depending on which stage of the disorder the patient is in, emergency treatment may be needed and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal must be monitored. After thiamin levels have been restored, the patient should continue recovery and treat their addiction to alcohol at an alcohol rehab. Alcohol rehab will provide a variety of treatment options, including detox, counseling, group and individual therapy, residential treatment programs, education and family involvement. Help prevent the damaging effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and other alcohol-induced consequences by seeking treatment at an alcohol rehab today.


Written by: Wendy Moelker

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