Korsakoff’s syndrome, a form of alcohol-induced dementia, is an amnestic disorder caused by a thiamine deficiency and is considered one of the most serious and damaging outcomes of alcohol abuse.
Chronic alcohol abuse depletes the body’s stores of thiamine or vitamin B1. Since this is the nutrient that helps our brain cells convert sugar into energy, this makes it difficult for our brain cells to work properly.
It is possible to get Korsakoff syndrome via other causes than drinking, with malnutrition, anorexia or malabsorption being the most common.
Korsakoff’s Syndrome vs Wernicke’s Encephalopathy
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is another alcohol-induced mental health problem that is caused by lesions in the central nervous system, usually caused by the depletion of thiamine reserves and ongoing lack of thiamine.
It can cause life-threatening issues within the brain and symptoms include loss of balance, confusion, involuntary eye movements, loss of co-ordination and more.
Because both conditions are closely related to a lack of vitamin B stores, Korsakoff’s syndrome often closely follows a case of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, and they are often referred to together as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (or Korsakoff-Wernicke syndrome), although it is entirely possible to experience one without the other.
What Causes Korsakoff’s Syndrome?
As we already mentioned, the lack of vitamin B1 caused by long-term heavy drinking is the main cause, but exactly how the brain is damaged by this isn’t 100% clear. There are several biochemicals within the brain that are involved in both sending signals to different parts of the brain, and allowing us to access memories.
It is thought that these biochemicals rely heavily on thiamine to work properly, and that depleted thiamine stores can lead to damaged neurons along with countless microscopic wounds on the thalamus and hypothalamus which leads to scar tissue and loss of function in the Korsakoff’s syndrome sufferer’s brain, severely impeding the movement of these biochemicals.
Symptoms of Korsakoff’s Syndrome
Sufferers of Korsakoff’s syndrome struggle to memorise new information (anteretrograde amnesia) and can have large gaps in both their short-term and long-term memory (retrograde amnesia).
Often, thought processes and conversational skills are unaffected despite major memory issues, meaning a sufferer could have a perfectly reasonable conversation with you one minute, and have no idea who you are ten minutes later.
People with Korsakoff’s syndrome can also often experience fabricated memories (confabulation), referring back to things that didn’t happen, but appear clear as day in their memory. Apathy and lack of insight are also common symptoms, with Korsakoff’s Syndrome patients struggling to add anything to a conversation.
There are no brain scans, MRIs or lab tests that doctors can employ to diagnose Korsakoff’s syndrome, meaning it can be very difficult to diagnose and is often mixed up with other mental health conditions that can be caused by long term drinking or withdrawal.
Korsakoff’s Syndrome Treatment
The most common and immediate treatment for Korsakoff’s syndrome is regular, high doses of thiamine and other vitamins and minerals. This rapidly fills up the body’s nutrient stores and prevents the condition from worsening. In some cases it may even improve the condition of the brain’s neural pathways and help spur a recovery.
Unfortunately, when this doesn’t happen, there is very little else that can be done. With constant vitamin supplements, and a complete absence of drinking, it is possible that the symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome will fade away over time and memories will return. It’s also possible this won’t be the case, with the most extreme cases of Korsakoff’s syndrome being permanent. This being the case often leads to the necessity of supported accommodation or long-term inpatient care, with Korsakoff’s Syndrome then being treated as more of a psychological issue and not something that can be cured via medication or procedure..
According to the NHS, around 25% of Korsakoff’s syndrome sufferers experience a full recovery, around 50% experience a partial recovery but have some symptoms for the rest of their lives, and the remaining 25% never recover, although they may still live a full lifespan if drinking is stopped immediately and permanently.
Korsakoff’s Syndrome Patients in the UK
If you believe you or a loved one may be suffering from Korsakoff’s syndrome or experiencing dependence on alcohol, we highly recommend calling us immediately on 0203 151 1280.
Our expert staff are amongst the most qualified around and are able to provide friendly, no-obligation advice on rehab clinics in your area, detox from home programmes, treatments for Korsakoff’s Syndrome (NHS and otherwise) and more.
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and discussing your issues with a medical professional will help in ways you couldn’t imagine, so contact us now!