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Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD)

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

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Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder, due to thiamine deficiency that has been associated with both Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome. The term refers to two different syndromes, each representing a different stage of the disease. Wernicke's encephalopathy represents the "acute" phase and Korsakoff's syndrome represents the "chronic" phase.[1] However, they are used interchangeable in many sites. Wernicke's encephalopathy is characterized by confusion, abnormal stance and gait (ataxia), and abnormal eye movements (nystagmus). Korsakoff's syndrome is observed in a small number of patients. It is a type of dementia, characterized by memory loss and confabulation (filling in of memory gaps with data the patient can readily recall) and involvement of the heart, vascular, and nervous system. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome mainly results from chronic alcohol use, but also from dietary deficiencies, prolonged vomiting, eating disorders, systemic diseases (cancer, AIDS, infections), bariatric surgery, transplants, or the effects of chemotherapy.[1][2][3] Studies indicate that there may be some genetic predisposition for the disease. Treatment is basically done by supplementing thiamine. Wernicke encephalopathy is an acute syndrome and needs an emergency treatment to prevent death and neurologic problems, therefore, in cases where the diagnosis is not confirmed yet, patients should still be treated while additional evaluations are completed.[11916[3]
Last updated: 7/26/2016


  1. NINDS Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). 2016;
  2. So YT. Wernicke encephalopathy. UpToDate. May 05, 2015;
  3. Xiong GL. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Medscape Reference. April 18, 2016;
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Basic Information

  • MedlinePlus was designed by the National Library of Medicine to help you research your health questions, and it provides more information about this topic.
  • The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) collects and disseminates research information related to neurological disorders. Click on the link to view information on this topic.
  • The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) has a report for patients and families about this condition. NORD is a patient advocacy organization for individuals with rare diseases and the organizations that serve them.

In Depth Information

  • Medscape Reference provides information on this topic. You may need to register to view the medical textbook, but registration is free.
  • The Monarch Initiative brings together data about this condition from humans and other species to help physicians and biomedical researchers. Monarch’s tools are designed to make it easier to compare the signs and symptoms (phenotypes) of different diseases and discover common features. This initiative is a collaboration between several academic institutions across the world and is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Visit the website to explore the biology of this condition.
  • Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) is a catalog of human genes and genetic disorders. Each entry has a summary of related medical articles. It is meant for health care professionals and researchers. OMIM is maintained by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 
  • Orphanet is a European reference portal for information on rare diseases and orphan drugs. Access to this database is free of charge.
  • PubMed is a searchable database of medical literature and lists journal articles that discuss Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Click on the link to view a sample search on this topic.
See Disclaimer regarding information on this site. Some links on this page may take you to organizations outside of the National Institutes of Health.