Korsakoff Syndrome

Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory disorder caused by a severe deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B-1). While alcohol misuse is the most common cause, other conditions can also lead to the development of Korsakoff syndrome.


Thiamine is essential for brain cells to produce energy from sugar. When thiamine levels become too low, brain cells are unable to function properly due to insufficient energy production. Korsakoff syndrome is primarily associated with alcohol misuse, but it can also be linked to AIDS, widespread cancers, chronic infections, poor nutrition, malabsorption, and certain other conditions. In some cases, Korsakoff syndrome is preceded by an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, which is a severe reaction to thiamine deficiency. This acute condition is a medical emergency characterized by confusion, coordination problems, abnormal eye movements, and lack of balance. Korsakoff syndrome is sometimes referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome when it follows an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, but it can also occur without prior Wernicke encephalopathy.


The exact prevalence of Korsakoff syndrome is unknown, but it is generally considered less common than other forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, or dementia with Lewy bodies. Similar to other types of dementia, Korsakoff syndrome may be underdiagnosed.

Causes and Risk Factors

The specific mechanisms by which Korsakoff syndrome damages the brain are not yet fully understood. Research suggests that severe thiamine deficiency disrupts various biochemical processes involved in signal transmission among brain cells and memory storage and retrieval. These disruptions lead to the destruction of brain cells and the formation of microscopic bleeding and scar tissue. Certain genetic variations and poor nutrition are identified as potential risk factors for Korsakoff syndrome. Alcohol misuse is the most common cause, although it remains unclear why some alcoholics develop severe thiamine deficiency while others experience different effects on various body systems.


Korsakoff syndrome primarily affects the ability to learn new information, remember recent events, and retain long-term memories. Memory difficulties are often severe, while other cognitive and social skills remain relatively intact. Individuals with Korsakoff syndrome may confabulate, creating false information to compensate for their memory deficits. It’s important to note that they genuinely believe the fabricated explanations. Hallucinations, where individuals see or hear things that are not there, may also occur.


Diagnosing Korsakoff syndrome relies on clinical judgment based on a person’s symptoms. There are no specific laboratory tests or neuroimaging procedures to confirm the disorder. Diagnosis can be challenging as the symptoms may be masked by other common conditions among alcohol misusers, such as intoxication, withdrawal, infection, or head injury. Medical evaluations for memory loss or cognitive changes should always include questions about alcohol use. People admitted to the hospital for alcohol-related conditions should undergo professional screening for memory loss and cognitive changes, including detailed cognitive assessments if impairment is suspected.

Outcomes and Treatment

Wernicke encephalopathy, which may precede Korsakoff syndrome, is a medical emergency. Without treatment, it can be fatal in up to 20% of cases and progress to Korsakoff syndrome in 85% of survivors. Prompt administration of injectable thiamine can improve abnormal eye movements and coordination within a few days, while confusion may take several months to resolve. As confusion subsides, the severe memory problems associated with Korsakoff syndrome become more apparent.

Long-term outcomes for individuals with Korsakoff syndrome, with or without a preceding Wernicke encephalopathy episode, are not extensively studied. Available data suggest that approximately 25% of individuals eventually recover, around 50% experience some improvement but not full recovery, and approximately 25% remain unchanged. Research indicates that those who recover and abstain from alcohol may have a normal life expectancy.

For individuals at risk of thiamine deficiency, such as heavy drinkers, thiamine and other vitamin supplements may be recommended under medical supervision. Injectable thiamine is often administered to those with a history of heavy alcohol use who exhibit symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy. After acute symptoms improve, a comprehensive evaluation is conducted to assess if the person’s medical history, alcohol use, and memory problems align with Korsakoff syndrome. Extended treatment with oral thiamine, other vitamins, and magnesium may enhance symptom improvement. If no progress occurs, addressing comorbid deficiencies and medical conditions and considering long-term residential care or supportive accommodation should be explored.

Abstaining from alcohol and maintaining a healthy diet are crucial aspects of long-term treatment. Individuals with Korsakoff syndrome have reduced alcohol tolerance and are at a higher risk of developing additional alcohol-related health problems.