What is Wernicke’s syndrome?

Wernicke’s syndrome is a type of brain disorder that is caused by a long-term, inefficient amount of vitamin B1 (thiamine). It is also known as Wernicke's encephalopathy or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.  The condition most often occurs among people who suffer from alcoholism. However, it can also occur among people who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment, are vomiting chronically, have an eating disorder, or have had bariatric surgery. Wernicke’s syndrome is actually two separate conditions, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome. In Wernicke’s syndrome, these two conditions can occur at the same time. People usually develop symptoms of encephalopathy first. Once they begin to subside, people often then develop symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome. However, if treatment is sought for the condition early on and it is effective, people may never develop Korsakoff’s syndrome. In the United States, it is estimated that about one to three percent of people have Wernicke's encephalopathy.

Wernicke’s syndrome

The main cause of Wernicke’s syndrome is alcoholism. This is because people who suffer from alcoholism often do not have a healthy diet and are not getting the proper nutrients or eating a healthy amount of food. Excessive alcohol abuse also prevents the body from storing and absorbing vitamin B1. Other causes that are less common include conditions that prevent eating a sufficient amount of food and absorbing a sufficient amount of nutrients such as having had gastric bypass surgery or colon cancer.

When people have Wernicke’s syndrome, they develop lesions on the brain. This is caused by the lack of vitamin B1 in the body. When this happens, people will usually experiences signs or symptoms such as double vision, a drooping upper eyelid, up and down or side-to-side eye movements, loss of muscle coordination, and a confused mental state. If Wernicke’s syndrome develops into Korsakoff’s syndrome, people will usually experience symptoms such as memory problems such as memory loss or the inability to create new memories. Other symptoms that may be seen include amnesia for events that happen after the condition starts, difficulty understanding information, difficulty putting words into context, hallucinations, or exaggerating stories.

People who are at risk for developing Wernicke's syndrome include people who suffer from alcoholism, have eating disorders, are getting chemotherapy treatment, have HIV, or have had weight loss surgery such as gastric bypass surgery.