Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory disorder that is caused by a severe deficiency of vitamin B-1 (or thiamine). Though not always the case, Korsakoff syndrome is most often caused by misusing alcohol over time.
Vitamin B-1 is essential for healthy brain function. Specifically, it takes sugar and produces energy. When the brain cells are unable to generate enough energy (due to low levels in the body), the brain cannot function properly, and Korsakoff syndrome may start developing. Korsakoff syndrome is sometimes associated with other conditions, including AIDS, poor nutrition, and many more.
Signs of Korsakoff syndrome include:
- Inability to form any new memories
- Severe loss of memory
- Confabulation (the act of making up stories)
Brain or Physical Changes
Researchers and scientists are still unsure how Korsakoff syndrome changes the brain. What is known is that a severe thiamine deficiency disrupts the biochemicals that have important roles delivering signals in the brain, as well as retrieving and storing memories. These thiamine deficiency disruptions create widespread (though microscopic) bleeding and scar tissue.
Causes and/or Risk Factors
Misuse of alcohol remains the most common reason for a Korsakoff syndrome diagnosis. Researchers and scientists continue to look for reasons why heavy drinking can cause liver, heart, stomach, or intestinal problems for some people, while others are primarily affected with a thiamine deficiency.
Additional risk factors include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Genetic variations
- Poor nutrition
- Fasting/excessive dieting or starvation
- Weight-loss surgery
- Uncontrolled vomiting
- Dialysis of the kidneys
Diagnosis, Treatment, and Care
Because alcoholism is the most frequent contributor to a Korsakoff syndrome diagnosis, doctors most frequently ask questions about a person’s alcohol use when looking for a potential diagnosis. Unfortunately, no specific lab test or brain scan is able to confirm a Korsakoff syndrome diagnosis. Specifically, the syndrome is difficult to identify because it could be masked by symptoms belonging to other conditions (including intoxication, withdrawal, or head injury). Whenever a person is admitted to the hospital for alcohol-related conditions, he or she is most often screened for cognitive changes or memory loss.