- Clinical science
Wernicke encephalopathy is an acute, reversible condition caused by severe thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, often due to chronic heavy alcohol use. Inadequate intake, impaired absorption, or increased excretion of thiamine can also cause Wernicke encephalopathy. The classical triad of confusion, oculomotor dysfunction, and gait ataxia is seen in about a third of patients. Chronic thiamine deficiency, especially in patients with alcohol use disorder, frequently progresses to Korsakoff syndrome, which is characterized by irreversible personality changes, anterograde and retrograde amnesia, and confabulation. The diagnosis of both Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome is clinical, but laboratory tests confirming thiamine deficiency and brain imaging may be considered in ambiguous cases. Wernicke encephalopathy is an emergency and requires immediate high-dose IV thiamine therapy followed by long-term thiamine supplementation. Abstaining from alcohol is vital in both conditions. While the prognosis in Wernicke encephalopathy is good if treated accordingly, that in Korsakoff syndrome is generally poor.
- Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are caused by a severe deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1).
Thiamine deficiency can be due to:
- Chronic heavy alcohol use (most common); → inadequate intake, absorption, and hepatic storage of thiamine
- Inadequate intake
- Increased demand (hypermetabolic states)
- Increased loss
- Thiamine pyrophosphatase (TPP) is the active form of thiamine.
- TPP is a cofactor for important enzymes involved in cerebral glucose and energy metabolism (see ).
- The brain requires a constant source of thiamine to function properly.
- Thiamine deficiency → decreased cerebral glucose metabolism and mitochondrial dysfunction → depleted ATP and increased free radicals → injury of neuronal elements (e.g., myelin sheaths, blood-brain-barrier, decreased neurotransmitters, etc.) → impaired axonal conduction → symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome
Wernicke encephalopathy (acute, reversible)
Should be suspected in any patient with a history of chronic heavy alcohol use who presents with one/more symptoms of the classic triad of Wernicke encephalopathy
- Confusion (most common)
- Oculomotor dysfunction
- Gait ataxia: wide-based, small steps
- Other manifestations
Korsakoff syndrome (chronic, irreversible)
- Confabulation: Patients produce fabricated memories to fill in lapses of memory.
- Anterograde and retrograde amnesia (anterograde > retrograde)
- Personality changes (in frontal lobe lesions): apathy, indifference, decrease in executive function
- Disorientation to time, place, and person
Although often grouped together as a single syndrome (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome), the two conditions are distinct entities with different presentations, and, while both are due to severe chronic thiamine deficiency, Wernicke encephalopathy is reversible whereas Korsakoff syndrome is not.
- Usually a clinical diagnosis
- In ambiguous cases
- Laboratory tests
- Brain MRI: T2-weighted hyperintense lesions in the mammillary bodies, midbrain tectal plate, dorsomedial nuclei of the thalamus, cerebellum, and around the aqueduct and the third ventricle
Laboratory tests or imaging should not delay treatment!
Wernicke encephalopathy (conditions that manifest with an acute onset of delirium/ataxia)
- Hypoxia/hypercarbia (post cardiac arrest)
- Postictal state
- CNS infections (e.g., )
- Korsakoff syndrome (conditions that present with amnesia, disorientation)
The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.
- Wernicke encephalopathy
- Oral thiamine supplementation to prevent further progression to irreversible complications
- Abstinence from alcohol
- Psychiatric and psychological therapy
- Memory strengthening exercises and aids
- The use of signs and arrows at home can help with orientation.