Definition

Wernicke encephalopathy is a brain disease. It can lead to confusion, poor muscle control, and other problems. If left untreated, it can get worse and even be fatal.

The Brain

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Causes

Wernicke encephalopathy is caused by low thiamine (vitamin B1) levels. This may be due to a poor diet, problems absorbing vitamins, or both.

Risk Factors

Wernicke encephalopathy is most common in people with alcohol use disorder. Other things that raise the risk are:

Symptoms

Symptoms may be:

  • Mental changes, such as:
    • Confusion
    • Problems staying focused
    • Memory loss
  • Vision problems
  • Problems walking and sitting

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.

A blood test can check thiamine levels.

Treatment

Wernicke encephalopathy needs to be treated right away. Options are:

  • Thiamine supplements—to treat low thiamine levels
  • Diet changes
  • Treatment for alcohol abuse disorder or eating disorders

Prevention

To reduce the risk:

  • Eat foods high in thiamine, such as:
    • Lentils and peas
    • Cereal—with added vitamins
    • Pecans
    • Spinach
    • Oranges
    • Milk and eggs
  • Limit alcohol or treat alcohol abuse disorder.
RESOURCES:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
https://www.ninds.nih.gov

National Institute on Aging
https://www.nia.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Alzheimer Society Canada
http://www.alzheimer.ca

Public Health Agency of Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

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 March 2, 2021.

Sinha S, Kataria A, Kolla BP, et al. Wernicke encephalopathy-clinical pearls. Mayo Clin Proc. 2019;94(6):1065-1072.

Wernicke encephalopathy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/wernicke-encephalopathy. Accessed March 2, 2021.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Patient website. Available at: https://patient.info/doctor/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome. Accessed March 2, 2021.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Radiopaedia website. Available at: https://radiopaedia.org/articles/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome. Accessed March 2, 2021.

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 March 2, 2021.

Last reviewed January 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD  Last Updated: 3/2/2021