Alcohol is a dangerous drug–a very dangerous drug.
While the use of alcohol has become part of the common fabric of many social gatherings and it widely available for purchase on literally every street corner, alcohol misuse and abuse continues to be widespread throughout the United States and remains a major health and societal issue. Consider the following statistics:
- Nearly 90,000 fatalities annually are attributed to the over-consumption of alcohol
- Alcoholism is the 3rd cause of preventable, lifestyle based deaths in the United States
- Alcohol abuse can potentially shorten an addict’s lifespan up to 30 years
- Over 40 percent of all U.S. hospital admissions are due to alcohol-related illnesses or injuries.
There is no doubt that alcohol addiction and dependence takes a severe toll on users, and the physical toll of alcohol abuse and addiction is especially pronounced. In addition to health complications such as cirrhosis, pancreatitis and liver cancer, another serious health issue associated with alcoholism is Korsakoff Syndrome.
What is Korsakoff Syndrome?
Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory disorder that is usually associated with heavy drinking over a long period of time, but can also occur as a result of chronic infections, AIDS and poor nutrition. People who are afflicted with this disorder experience loss of short term memory. This syndrome is diagnosed in about one in eight people with alcoholism and is present in about 2% in the population, which is about 1 in 1,000 worldwide. The cause for development of this syndrome is a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) which affects the brain and nervous system. People who are excessive in their consumption of alcohol tend to be deficient in thiamine.
What is Thiamine?
Thiamine is an essential nutrient that all of the tissues in the body, including the brain, need in order for correct functioning. When thiamine enters an organ, it uses the nutrient to create a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that transports energy within cells. When there are deficiencies in thiamine as a result of high alcohol consumption or other issue, it can seriously impact the nervous system, the heart and can severly impact brain function.
Causes of Korsakoff Syndrome
The root of this deficiency in thiamine is because many heavy drinkers have poor dietary habits and what they are consuming does not contain the essential nutrients. Alcohol can block the absorption of thiamine and therefore the conversion of the vitamin to its active form does not occur. Also, alcohol can cause inflammation in the stomach lining and as a result frequent vomiting can occur. As a result, key vitamins essential for proper nutrition are not absorbed and it makes it harder for the liver to store these vitamins.
Development of Korsakoff Syndrome
Korsakoff syndrome is a part of a larger condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff’ syndrome which consists of two separate stages. The first stage of the disorder is known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is followed by Korsakoff’s syndrome. Wernicke’s encephalopathy usually develops suddenly and in some cases there may be no obvious symptoms which can make it difficult to diagnose. When combined, both disorders produce the following list of symptoms:
- Dramatic changes to vision
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Speech impediments
- Hard time swallowing
- Memory loss
- Confabulation (when an individual makes up stories to fill the gaps of memory loss and claiming they actually occurred)
- Inability to make sense when they speak
If Wernicke’s encephalopathy is suspected, immediate treatment is essential. If treatment is carried out in time (within a few days of diagnosis) most of the symptoms can be reversed. However, if left untreated, Korsakoff syndrome usually follows. Korsakoff syndrome, unlike Wernicke’s, develops gradually. Damage associated with the syndrome is usually concentrated in the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory. Despite the impact on short-term memory, working memory among other abilities remain intact.
The main symptom in Korsakoff syndrome is memory loss, along with difficult is acquiring new information and learning skill set along with changes in personality (with can in extremes between apathy and repetitive behavior). Also, an individual may not have insight into their condition even when large gaps in memory are noticed by that individual.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Korsakoff syndrome cannot be diagnosed until a person has stopped drinking for a period of several weeks. The administration of a physical exam, along with performing lab tests and taking a medical history are important steps. In addition, psychological testing of memory and other abilities will be performed. The individual will be observed to see if their condition improves or worsens without alcohol. If an individual’s condition worsens, another form of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease may be diagnosed.
If caught early on, Korsakoff syndrome is treatable through thiamine injections. These injections can improve brain function and improve the condition of an individual’s tissues and organs. Additionally, those early in recovery who were diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome may also benefit from medications that are used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Most who find their way towards recovery can benefit from regaining all of what was lost, including vision and memory. In addition to thiamine treatments, those who are in recovery must abstain completely from alcohol and adopt a healthy and balanced diet. Improvement is usually gradual with the average time occurring within a period of two years. However, if an individual is not diagnosed with Korsakoff syndrome until its’ later stages, their brain functioning will most likely suffer some degree of permanent impairment.