Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS): Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a brain disorder that can be caused by drinking too much alcohol. Symptoms may include confusion, vision problems, low blood pressure, and more.

Get Help Now!
Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS


Alcohol use disorder can occur when a person drinks alcoholic beverages to the point that they become physically dependent on the substance and put their health and safety at risk.

Prolonged alcohol abuse may lead to the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a condition that can affect areas of the brain involved with memory and cause damage to the nervous system.

What Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, also called wet brain, may develop when a person’s brain doesn’t get enough vitamin B1, or thiamine.

This is oftentimes caused by prolonged misuse of alcohol or malnutrition due to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.

This condition occurs after a long period of untreated addiction to alcohol, and if not addressed early on, can cause permanent damage to the brain.

Without treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome will get progressively worse and may be life-threatening. If treatment is administered early, the disorder can be slowed or stopped.

Causes Of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

When a person abuses alcohol, their body does not absorb nutrients effectively because their liver is not working at full capacity. Over time they may develop Beriberi, a deficit in thiamine.

A lack of nutrients, particularly vitamin B1, will have detrimental effects on the ability of a person’s brain cells to work properly. Over time, malabsorption of vitamin B1 will cause damage to the brain.

The first stage of Wernicke-Korsakoff happens when severe inflammation of the brain occurs, known as “Wernicke’s encephalopathy”.

If the swelling is not treated, a person may develop the next stage of the syndrome called “Korsakoff’s syndrome”, which is a long-term condition that carries many of the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s disease.

Symptoms Of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Due to the severe neurological implications of untreated Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, it’s imperative to be able to recognize the symptoms and get them treated promptly.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome include:

  • drowsiness due to damage to the hypothalamus
  • low energy
  • blood pressure drops when you stand
  • fast heartbeat
  • dysfunction in glucose levels due to abnormalities in the transketolase enzyme
  • mental confusion
  • erratic eye movements (nystagmus)
  • eye paralysis (ophthalmoplegia)
  • double vision
  • memory loss or the creation of false memories (confabulation)
  • impairment of muscle coordination (ataxia)
  • skin lesions

One of the telltale signs of progressing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is short-term memory loss from alcohol brain damage. People may notice that it’s hard to make new memories.

Risk Factors For Developing Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Alcohol abuse is the most common risk factor for developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is because of the effect alcohol has on the intestines and their ability to absorb vitamins.

There are several health conditions and lifestyle choices that limit nutritional absorption.

Factors that may affect nutrient absorption include:

  • eating disorders such as anorexia
  • gastric bypass surgery
  • colon cancer
  • kidney dialysis
  • poor diet
  • AIDS

Can You Reverse Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

The prospect of reversing WKS is dependent on how far along the disease has advanced. If detected early and treated, much of the cognitive issues and other physical ailments can be reversed.

If Wernicke encephalopathy progresses to Korsakoff syndrome, brain damage may be irreversible. Even with aggressive treatment, problems with memory, vision, and walking may persist.

Treatment Options For Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

When treatment is administered for Wernicke-Korsakoff, the first step will involve a daily dose of vitamin B1 to help combat the thiamine deficiency.

Thiamine supplementation may include an intravenous injection with a needle or pill supplement. It is also recommended to eat a balanced diet and abstain from alcohol consumption.

Once the acute symptoms subside, a healthcare professional will evaluate your condition for further treatment. With prompt care, this disorder can be slowed or stopped.

Treatment Programs For Alcohol Addiction

If you or someone you care about currently struggles with alcohol abuse, help is available at a drug rehab center.

Treatment options may include:

An evidence-based treatment program can help you overcome addiction while managing the potentially dangerous effects of alcohol withdrawal.

Find Drug And Alcohol Treatment Services At Bedrock Recovery Center

Call Bedrock Recovery Center today for more information on our residential treatment program for alcohol abuse. Our team can help get you on track to an alcohol-free life.

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body
  2. National Institute of Health (NIH) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532917/
  3. National Institute of Health (NIH) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23887463/
  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Wernicke-Korsakoff-Syndrome-Information-Page

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

Prefer Texting?
We've got you covered.

Receive 24/7 text support right away.
There is no obligation and you can opt out at any time.

Sign up for text support

Receive 24/7 text support right away.
There is no obligation and you can opt out at any time.
Ready to make a change? Talk to a specialist now.
(617) 657-2877
icon-angle icon-bars icon-times