What is the pathophysiology of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS)?

Updated: May 16, 2018
  • Author: Glen L Xiong, MD; Chief Editor: David Bienenfeld, MD  more...
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Answer

Additional findings include increased astrocyte lactate and edema, increased extracellular glutamate concentrations, increased nitric oxide from endothelial cell dysfunction, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) fragmentation in neurons, free radical production and increase in cytokines, and breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. Thiamine appears to have a role in acetylcholinergic and serotoninergic synaptic transmission and axonal conduction.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are attributed to these focal areas of damage. Ocular motor signs are attributable to lesions in the brainstem affecting the abducens nuclei and eye movement centers in the pons and midbrain. These lesions are characterized by a lack of significant destruction to nerve cells, which accounts for the rapid improvement and degree of recovery observed with thiamine repletion.

Ataxia is a manifestation of damage to the cerebellum, particularly the superior vermis. The cerebellar changes consist of a degeneration of all layers of the cortex, particularly the Purkinje cells. The loss of neurons leads to persistent ataxia of gait and stance. In addition to cerebellar dysfunction, the vestibular apparatus is also affected. In addition, chronic alcohol consumption results in a 35% decrease in transketolase activity within the cerebellum, which is likely due to thiamine deficiency.

Vestibular paresis, confirmed by abnormal results on caloric testing, is observed in the early stages of disease and generally improves with treatment. The amnestic component is related to damage in the diencephalon, including the medial thalamus, and connections with the medial temporal lobes and amygdala. The slow and incomplete recovery of memory deficits suggests that amnesia is related to irreversible structural damage.


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