Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome


  • Wernicke’s Encephalopathy (WE): ACUTE neuro/cardiovascular sx caused by thiamine deficiency
  • Korsakoff’s Psychosis (KP): CHRONIC neurologic symptoms caused by thiamine deficiency
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS): presence of WE + KP simultaneously


  • Only 20% identified before death, failure of dx leads to 20% mortality and 75% permanent damage


  • Brain lesions/atrophy occurs: mamillary bodies (nearly all cases), thalamus, periaqueductal gray matter, 3rd/4th ventricle, cerebellum, frontal lobe


  • Anything that causes thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency: poor dietary intake, malabsorption, increased metabolic requirement
    • Chronic alcoholism, dieting/fasting/starvation, anorexia, vomiting/diarrhea, unbalanced TPN, GI surgery, malignancy, dialysis, AIDS, IBD, pancreatitis, liver disease, thyrotoxicosis

Clinical Features

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

  • Classic triad: encephalopathy, oculomotor dysfunction, gait ataxia
  • werNICke mnemonic:
    • N: Nystagmus/ophthalmoplegia
    • I: Incoordination/ataxia
    • C: Confusion/memory impairment
  • Other sx: hypotension, tachycardia, EKG abnormalities, DOE, CHF sx, hypothermia, coma, dry/wet Beriberi

Korsakoff’s Psychosis

  • Sx: anterograde/retrograde amnesia, confabulation, confusion, apathy

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

  • Sx: combination of WE and KP

Differential Diagnosis

Thiamine deficiency types


WE/KP/WKS = clinical diagnoses


If you suspect WE/KP/WKS then treat it! Diagnosis is clinical and difficult to confirm, treatment is simple/inexpensive/effective, there is little risk to treatment, and the risk of morbidity/mortality from not treating is high

  • Suspected WE/KP/WKS: thiamine 500 mg IV over 30 min TID x 2 days, then 500 mg IV/IM q day for 5 days, then 100 mg PO q day until pt no longer at risk
    • Give magnesium; hypomagnesemic state may be resistant to thiamine administration
    • Treatment can take days to weeks to work if at all (despite accurate diagnosis)
    • Give thiamine BEFORE glucose in patients requiring glucose who are at risk for thiamine deficiency; glucose without thiamine can precipitate/worsen WE by driving thiamine intracellularly

Vitamin Prophylaxis for Alcoholics

  • For the majority of chronic alcoholics, you should not administer a banana bag (thiamine 100 mg + magnesium 2-4 g + folate 1 mg + multivitamin; all in 1L NS or D5W)[1][2]
    • At risk for thiamine deficiency but no symptoms: thiamine 100 mg PO q day
    • Give multivitamin; pt at risk for other vitamin deficiencies

See Also


  1. Krishel, S, et al. Intravenous Vitamins for Alcoholics in the Emergency Department: A Rreview. The Journal of Emergency Medicine. 1998; 16(3):419–424.
  2. Li, SF, et al. Vitamin deficiencies in acutely intoxicated patients in the ED. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 2008; 26(7):792–795.