Korsakoff's Syndrome

Korsakoff's syndrome is a neuropsychiatric disorder associated with severe impairment of memory, which is related to advanced forms of chronic alcoholism. Another name for this condition is the Korsakoff's psychosis.


The failure of brain functions is caused by complex disruption of the brain in alcoholics. The situation occurs as combination of direct toxic effect of alcohol on the brain tissue, the lack of vitamins (e.g. vitamin B1) and malnutrition. When there is present alcoholic liver cirrhosis, that causes liver failure, the brain can be damaged by toxic products of metabolism that accumulate due to insufficient detoxification function of liver tissue. This situation is referred to as hepatic encephalopathy.


Korsakoff's syndrome can be considered a specific type of alcohol dementia. It manifests with disturbances of cerebral function, dementia and memory disorders. The victim is unable to absorb new information and has significantly impaired ability to remember facts. The patient loses orientation in time (does not know the current day, season or year) and in location (does not know where he or she is). The memory loss is typically accompanied with partially obscure confabulations, i.e. making up the missing facts. The patient is usually unaware of his or her memory problems, not to mention the alcoholism.


The diagnosis is done in patient with personal history of chronic alcoholism and positive psychiatric examination, which confirms specific symptoms typical for the syndrome. The patient should be also examined by a neurologist and computed tomography of brain should be done to exclude organic causes of dementia (brain hemorrhage, injuries, subdural hematoma, stroke, brain tumors, etc.).


The treatment is difficult as the Korsakoff’s dementia represents a very advanced stage of alcoholism. If the patient cooperates, it is necessary to discontinue alcohol intake, supply the patient with missing vitamins, treat the alcoholic liver disease and administer psychiatric drugs to improve the mental abilities of the patient. However, the outcome of therapy is uncertain and many patients have to be long-term hospitalized in mental hospitals.


Jiri Stefanek, MD  Author of texts: Jiri Stefanek, MD
 Contact: jiri.stefanek@seznam.cz
 Sources: basic text sources