Thiamin deficiency and Korsakoff's syndrome: failure to find memory impairments following nonalcoholic Wernicke's encephalopathy

J Homewood, N W Bond
Alcohol 1999, 19 (1): 75-84
Prolonged alcohol consumption is associated with a variety of neuropsychiatric conditions, including the dense amnesic disorder known as Korsakoff's syndrome. Korsakoff's syndrome is frequently diagnosed in alcoholics after an episode of acute thiamin deficiency. The accepted view within the medical literature is that the etiology of this disorder lies in thiamin deficiency or Wernicke's encephalopathy. However, examination of the published reports of pure thiamin deficiency unaccompanied by chronic and excessive consumption of alcohol shows that, in this group of patients, the rate of progression to Korsakoff's syndrome is low. This result suggests that the memory impairments associated with alcohol-related brain damage cannot be attributed to thiamin deficiency alone. The etiology of alcohol-related cognitive impairments such as Korsakoff's syndrome is still poorly understood but several lines of evidence suggest multiple causal factors interact to produce deficits in performance. Animal models that manipulate only a single putative etiological factor are unlikely to elucidate the multiple influences that lead to Korsakoff's syndrome. A study of the natural history of alcohol-related brain damage is needed that will allow an assessment of individual risk factors and their interactions.

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