Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is an unusual form of amnesia that combines two disorders: an acute confusional state (Wernicke encephalopathy) and a type of long-term amnesia called Korsakoff syndrome. Korsakoff syndrome develops in about 80% of people with untreated Wernicke encephalopathy.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may develop in alcoholics and other malnourished people, usually because of a deficiency of thiamin (vitamin B1). Rarely, this syndrome results from a head injury (a traumatic brain injury).
Wernicke encephalopathy causes loss of balance, drowsiness, a tendency to stagger, and eye movement problems in addition to confusion.
Korsakoff syndrome may initially cause severe memory loss for recent events. Memory of more distant past events seems to be less impaired. Thus, people may be able to interact socially and converse coherently even though they cannot remember anything that happened in the preceding few days, months, or years or even in the preceding few minutes. They tend to make things up (confabulate) rather than admit that they cannot remember. Because they cannot remember things they have recently done, they never tire of reading a favorite magazine over and over again.
Doctors suspect Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome in people who have the characteristic symptoms and who have a disorder that can cause this syndrome (such as undernutrition or a thiamin deficiency), especially if they are alcoholics.
Tests, such as blood tests to measure blood sugar and electrolyte levels, a complete blood cell count, liver function tests, and imaging, are usually done to rule out other causes. Sometimes doctors measure the thiamin level in blood.