(Cerebral Beriberi; Korsakoff Amnesic Syndrome)
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Korsakoff syndrome is a group of symptoms that affect memory, usually in patients with alcoholism. It usually occurs following Wernicke encephalopathy.
Korsakoff syndrome is caused by a lack of vitamin B1, also known as thiamine. This is usually associated with alcoholism, since a poor diet and alcohol can prevent the body from getting enough thiamine.
Not everyone with alcoholism develops Korsakoff syndrome. A combination of genes and diet may play a role.
Factors that increase your chance of developing Korsakoff syndrome include:
Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome may include:
The main symptom of Korsakoff syndrome is severe memory problems. It is most obvious 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 are not usually affected. To fill in the gaps in recent memory, patients tend to make up information that fits with the situation. This is called confabulation.
You will be asked 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 had Wernicke syndrome, Korsakoff syndrome is seriously considered as the cause of your memory problem.
Talk with the doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:
A referral may be made to an alcohol rehabilitation facility if alcoholism is the cause of the condition.
Thiamine supplements will be given to treat the thiamine deficiency.
Plenty of fluids will be advised. A referral will be made to a dietitian to help with meal planning, especially if a current diet is high in carbohydrates.
Korsakoff syndrome often occurs following Wernicke encephalopathy. To reduce the risk:
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Alcoholics Anonymous Canada
Dietitians of Canada
Harper C. Thiamine deficiency and associated brain damage is still common throughout the world and prevention is simple and safe. Eur J Neurol. 2006,13:1078-1082.
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Korsakoff syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T900713/Korsakoff-syndrome . Updated June 5, 2017. Accessed November 8, 2017.
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Lukas RV, Piantino J, 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.
Thomson AD, Marshall EJ. The natural history and pathophysiology of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Alcohol Alcohol. 2006,41:151.
Yoon CK, Chang MH, et al. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome associated with hyperemesis gravidarum. Korean J Ophthalmol. 2005;19(3):239-242.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN
Last Updated: 12/20/2014
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