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Korsakoff’s Syndrome

UBC PATHS Blog Post: Nov 7, 2023

Korsakoff’s syndrome, otherwise known as Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome, is a memory disorder that is caused by a severe deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1). Thiamine is a vitamin that is necessary for energy production via the breakdown of glucose. The vitamin D1 deficiency causes brain damage, eventually leading to the severe syndrome. It is common in people who suffer from alcohol substance use disorder, in people with AIDs or metastatic cancers, chronic infections, as well as other conditions. It often follows an episode of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is an acute neurological condition also caused by the low quantities of vitamin B1.

Effects, Signs, and Symptoms

This disease is very debilitating, the syndrome impacts sufferers cognitively as well as their sensory and motor systems. General symptoms include: balance leg tremors, walking unsteadily, confusion, lack of energy, hallucinations, trouble understanding or processing information and more. The full syndrome involves severe anterograde and retrograde amnesia; meaning that sufferers have issues with memories from the past and also difficulty creating new memories. Individuals with this order often undergo personality changes. The effects of this disorder are wide ranging and impact individuals' everyday life.


One of the major causes of Korsakoff’s syndrome is chronic alcohol use. This substance makes it more difficult for your body to absorb vitamins, like thiamine, and store them in your liver. Although this is the most frequent cause of this disorder, other possible causational factors include poor nutrition, eating disorders, chronic infections, certain surgeries, or traumatic brain injuries.

Relation to Alzheimer's and Other Neurodegenerative Diseases

Korsakoff’s syndrome causes severe memory loss and an impacted ability to form new memories. This amnesic syndrome is considered a medial diencephalic amnesia; meaning it impacts areas of the brian like the thalamus and hypothalamus. Interestingly the primary cause of this disease, heavy alcohol consumption also puts individuals at risk for other neurodegenerative disorders. The motor symptoms of Korsakoff’s are similar to that of Parkinson's disease, while the cognitive features have many overlaps with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s, similarly to Korsakoff’s syndrome, is a chronic memory disorder. Many studies have been conducted comparing the physiological differences between these two conditions. One of these studies, conducted by Segobin et al., concluded that there are many commonalities in the patterns of volume deficits between Korsakoff’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, recent research has suggested that there may be similar genetic predispositions for the two conditions. It was recently published that APOE-e4-, which is a variation of a gene that produces a protein called apolipoprotein E, is associated with a higher risk of developing both Korsakoff’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.


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