Dementia: What is Korsakoff’s Syndrome?

Gracewell  |  October 24, 2019
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Korsakoff’s syndrome is a non-progressive example of a dementia. It is a form of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), which results in a chronic memory disorder. It is less common than other examples of ARBD, including alcoholic dementia, and is made up of two separate, but related issues: Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE) and Korsakoff’s psychosis (KP).

Unlike many commonly known forms of dementia which occur in older people and see memory loss worsen over time, Korsakoff’s syndrome makes up around 10% of cases of dementia in younger people.

Causes

Korsakoff’s syndrome is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine). In most cases it is associated with alcohol abuse, as alcohol can disrupt the body’s ability to use thiamine and affect the storing of associated vitamins in the liver.

Excessive vomiting in pregnancy, other cases of uncontrolled vomiting, weight loss surgeries and bulimia can all also lead to the development of Korsakoff’s syndrome. A lack of thiamine can also occur where a person’s diet does not supply them with all the nutrients they need, such as in cases of stringent fasting or starvation.

In most cases of Korsakoff’s syndrome, it has developed from an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy. This is a serious brain reaction to a severe lack of thiamine in the body and is a sudden medical emergency. It can cause brain disruption and extreme cases of behaviour such as confusion and lack of coordination and balance, and paralysis of the eye muscles.

As Korsakoff’s syndrome and its associated severe memory loss takes place after an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, it is often referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, it is important to note that individuals who have not experienced Wernicke encephalopathy can also develop Korsakoff’s syndrome.

Symptoms

It can cause an individual to experience serious issues with their memory, including problems retaining new information or remembering recent events, as well as gaps in their long-term memory.

Other thinking and social skills can remain relatively unaffected. In most cases, individuals may be able to take part in a conversation or social situation with no major issues but may later be unable to recall any details about it having taken place.

People living with Korsakoff’s syndrome can also confabulate when taking part in conversation, by making up or incorrectly guessing information they cannot remember. When this happens, there is no intent to ‘lie,’ but instead may result in the individual believes what they say to be true.

What can be done?

Many of these symptoms can lead to both mild and more serious personality changes in an individual which can make spotting Korsakoff’s syndrome slightly easier.

If you believe you or a loved one is living with Korsakoff’s syndrome or memory loss, it is best to seek support from a medical professional, which can lead to a hospital referral and diagnosis.

There are ways to manage managing this condition, such as taking a notebook around to remember things and making lists.

You can receive more information about living with memory loss and support from Gracewell Healthcare. Visit www.gracewell.co.uk to find out more and discover your nearest Gracewell home.