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How can Korsakoff syndrome affect you?

You probably won’t have heard of Korsakoff syndrome unless you, or a loved one, has been diagnosed with it. So here’s all the basic information you need to know

In a nutshell

Korsakoff syndrome is a dementia-like condition usually associated with a chronic misuse of alcohol. Although Korsakoff syndrome does lead to memory loss it can be treated very successfully and in some cases a full recovery is possible.

Three facts worth knowing

1. Korsakoff syndrome accounts for 10 per cent of dementia in younger people aged 45-65, and affects more men than women.

2. Korsakoff syndrome is caused by a chronic lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) which affects the brain and nervous system.

3. Although alcohol misuse is the most common cause, weight disorders such as anorexia nervosa, can also cause Korsakoff syndrome since they also deplete the body of important vitamins.

Did you know? Korsakoff syndrome is named after the Russian neuropsychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff who discovered it in the 19th Century.

What actually happens

Heavy drinking depletes the body of essential vitamins, including vitamin B1 (thiamine), which is necessary for a healthy brain and nervous system. Eventually, the brain and nervous system can’t work properly, resulting in memory loss and other symptoms such as poor balance, jerky eye movement and changes in personality. If these symptoms appear gradually they can be difficult to spot and treat. However, if they come on suddenly and are correctly diagnosed, a quickly administered high dose injection of thiamine can have remarkable results, sometimes leading to a full recovery.

Here’s the science

Alcohol can cause widespread damage to nerve cells and blood vessels leading to damage and shrinkage of the brain. However Korsakoff syndrome and other so-called ‘alcohol-related dementias’ do not always result in a slow, steady decline, since vitamin injections, improved diet, support and abstinence can halt further deterioration and even result in improvements. For this reason, scientists now prefer to call Korsakoff’s and other similar conditions ‘alcohol-related brain damage’ rather than dementia.

Good to know

Korsakoff syndrome isn’t only treatable, it’s also preventable by cutting right down on alcohol and improving your diet to include lots of foods rich in vitamin B1.