Wernicke encephalopathy is a brain disorder. It can be associated with a variety of symptoms such as confusion, lack of muscle coordination, and eye movement difficulties.
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Wernicke encephalopathy is caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. The deficiency may be caused by poor nutrition, problems absorbing vitamins, or both.
Vitamin B deficiency is common in those with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Excessive intake of alcohol is associated with poor diets and damage to the intestines that make it difficult to absorb vitamins. However, not everyone with AUD develops Wernicke encephalopathy. A combination of genes and diet may play a role.
Factors that may increase your chances of Wernicke encephalopathy:
Symptoms may include:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
A blood tests can measure the level of thiamine in your blood.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:
If Wernicke encephalopathy is associated with AUD or an eating disorder, you may be referred to a rehabilitation facility.
To help reduce your chances of Wernicke encephalopathy:
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institute on Aging
Alzheimer Society Canada
Public Health Agency of Canada
Alcohol-related brain damage (including Korsakoff’s syndrome). Alzheimer’s Society website. Available at: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/info/20007/types_of_dementia/14/alcohol-related_brain_damage_including_korsakoffs_syndrome. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Kaineg B, Hudgins M. Wernicke’s encephalopathy. N Engl J Med. 2005;352(19):e18.
Lukas RV, Piantino J, Ksiazek S, et al. MRI changes in a head and neck cancer patient with Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and visual loss. Neuro-Ophthalmology. 2011;35(5-6):272-275.
Wernicke encephalopathy. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115007/Wernicke-encephalopathy . Updated June 15, 2017. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Patient website. Available at: https://patient.info/doctor/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome. Updated September 19, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Radiopaedia website. Available at: https://radiopaedia.org/articles/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome. Accessed December 21, 2017
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Wernicke-Korsakoff-Syndrome-Information-Page. Accessed December 21, 2017.
Last reviewed November 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 11/16/2015