​Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome


Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a type of neurological disorder (that is, related to the brain) that is caused by a lack of vitamin B1. The syndrome is actually two separate conditions that can occur at the same time or one after the other. Due to the close relationship between these two disorders, patients suffering from both are usually diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, as a single syndrome. You will usually experience symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy (this is also known as Wernicke’s disease) first. It causes brainstem damage and affects your vision, coordination, and balance. If/when the brain damage becomes chronic, signs of Korsakoff psychosis follow, which includes memory loss.

The main cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is alcohol abuse. It is also known to be caused by malnutrition or other conditions which cause nutritional deficiencies including those that impair vitamin B1 absorption.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome include:

  • Confusion and loss of mental activity leading to coma and death

  • Loss of muscle coordination (known as ataxia)

  • Leg tremors

  • Abnormal eye movements, double vision, eyelid drooping

  • Inability to form new memories

  • Loss of memory

  • Making up stories (known as confabulation)

  • Seeing or hearing things that are not really there (known as hallucination)

WKS symptoms may be long lasting and should be distinguished from the effects of alcohol consumption or alcohol withdrawal.

If you or a loved one is facing similar symptoms and/or has an alcohol problem, it is recommended that you consult with your doctor immediately. You can obtain additional information and expert medical advice from the <Mind and Brain Service Line> at The Aga Khan University Hospital the only internationally accredited hospital of Pakistan.

Your time with your doctor may be limited, so makes sure to prepare for your visit beforehand. Here are some tips to help get you started.

WKS is often missed as a diagnosis. Your doctor will first look for clinical signs that point to a vitamin B1 deficiency, including blood tests and liver function. There will also be a physical examination to assess your heart rate, eye movements, reflexes, blood pressure, and body temperature.
Brain damage that causes WKS may be identified through imaging techniques, including:

  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan: in this test, a machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of your brain.

  • CT (Computerized Tomography) scan: this is an imaging method that creates a two-dimensional image of the brain using X-ray technology.

Both above mentioned tests are not painful.

It is necessary to give your doctor a full medical history including information about your drinking habits.  In cases your doctor suspects that the cause of your WKS is not related to alcohol, he/she will then look into other causes that impair the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B1.

WKS is a treatable disease if it is diagnosed in the early stages. Once you start your treatment, the internationally trained doctors working with the Mind and Brain Service Line at The Aga Khan University Hospital will provide their utmost commitment and attention to your needs. 

The major form of treatment for WKS is thiamine (that is, Vitamin B1) replacement therapy. Your doctor will carefully monitor your condition, and especially your alcohol consumption. In the absence of alcohol, you will be much more capable of recovery. However, the recovery process takes a long time, sometimes up to a year or even longer. If the damage caused to the brain is irreversible, then the problem will be long lasting and may permanently leave you with problems in memory, muscle coordination and lack of sensations in limbs.

The Aga Khan University Hospital offers various support services to help with managing or recovering from the disease or condition. These include but are not limited to nutrition, physiotherapy, rehabilitation, specialized clinics and some patient support groups. Your doctor or nurse will advise you accordingly.

The Aga Khan University Hospital offers financial assistance to those who are in need and fulfil the eligibility criteria. For further information, you can contact the Patient Welfare Department. You can find the contact number of the Patient Welfare Department in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage.

The financial counselling staff is available during office hours, at the main PBSD (Patient Business Services Department), to answer your financial queries on treatments’ costs and authorize admissions on partial deposit as per hospital policies allow. The financial counsellor in the emergency room is open 24/7. You can find the contact number of the Patient Business Services in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage.

Your doctor and or nurse will give you specific instructions about the prescribed medication. Please ensure that you take or use the prescribed medicine as advised. It can be dangerous to your health if you self-prescribe. Please inform the doctor or nurse beforehand if you have experienced any adverse reactions to any medications in the past. If you experience any symptoms of drug poisoning, overdose or severe reaction please contact the Pharmacy Service at The Aga Khan University Hospital immediately. You can find the contact number of the Pharmacy Services in the ‘Important Numbers’ section on the website homepage


​The information provided on our website is for educational purposes and not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or other healthcare professional provider.