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Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD)

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

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What are the signs and symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

Although these conditions may appear to be two different disorders, they are generally considered to be different stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke's encephalopathy represents the "acute" phase and Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome represents the "chronic" phase.[1] The symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) commonly include:[1][2][3]  
Other symptoms may include:[1][2][4] 
 Korsakoff syndrome (KS) is seen most frequently in alcohol abusers after an episode of WE, and most patients with KS show typical WE lesions in the brain.[5] The main features of Korsakoff's syndrome are impairments in acquiring new information or establishing new memories, and in retrieving previous memories.[1][2] 

The symptoms include:[1][2][3][4] 
  • Loss of memory and inability to form new memories
  • Making of stories (confabulation)
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not really there (hallucinations)
  • Disorientation
  • Vision impairment. 
Attention and social behavior are relatively preserved. Affected subjects are able to carry on a socially appropriate conversation that may seem normal to an unsuspecting spectator. Patients with KS are as a rule unaware of their illness. Some patients may have severe cognitive function and global dementia.[5]

In people with memory impairment, lesions in an area of the brain known as the anterior thalamus are commonly found. 
The shrinking of the mamillary bodies is also specific for WE, so when  damaged or very small mamillary bodies are found in a demented patient, it is thought that the dementia may be due to alcohol abuse and malnutrition.[5]
Last updated: 7/26/2016

The Human Phenotype Ontology provides the following list of signs and symptoms for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. If the information is available, the table below includes how often the symptom is seen in people with this condition. You can use the MedlinePlus Medical Dictionary to look up the definitions for these medical terms.

Signs and Symptoms Approximate number of patients (when available)
Ataxia -
Autosomal recessive inheritance -
Coma -
Confusion -
Horizontal nystagmus -
Memory impairment -
Ophthalmoplegia -
Polyneuropathy -
Psychosis -
Ptosis -

Last updated: 7/1/2016

The Human Phenotype Ontology (HPO) has collected information on how often a sign or symptom occurs in a condition. Much of this information comes from Orphanet, a European rare disease database. The frequency of a sign or symptom is usually listed as a rough estimate of the percentage of patients who have that feature.

The frequency may also be listed as a fraction. The first number of the fraction is how many people had the symptom, and the second number is the total number of people who were examined in one study. For example, a frequency of 25/25 means that in a study of 25 people all patients were found to have that symptom. Because these frequencies are based on a specific study, the fractions may be different if another group of patients are examined.

Sometimes, no information on frequency is available. In these cases, the sign or symptom may be rare or common.

  1. NINDS Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). 2016;
  2. Dugdale DC. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. MedlinePlus. February, 2014;
  3. So YT. Wernicke encephalopathy. UpToDate. May 05, 2015;
  4. Xiong GL. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Medscape Reference. April 18, 2016;
  5. Charness ME. Overview of the chronic neurologic complications of alcohol. UpToDate. May 17, 2012;

See Disclaimer regarding information on this site. Some links on this page may take you to organizations outside of the National Institutes of Health.