Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory disorder caused by severe deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B-1). Korsakoff syndrome is most commonly caused by alcohol misuse, but certain other conditions also can cause the syndrome.
Thiamine (vitamin B-1) helps brain cells produce energy from sugar. When levels fall too low, brain cells cannot generate enough energy to function properly. As a result, Korsakoff syndrome may develop.
Korsakoff syndrome is most commonly caused by alcohol misuse, but can also be associated with AIDS, chronic infections, poor nutrition and certain other conditions. See causes and risks below.
Korsakoff syndrome is often, but not always, preceded by an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, which is an acute brain reaction to severe lack of thiamine.
Wernicke encephalopathy is a medical emergency that causes life-threatening brain disruption, confusion, staggering and stumbling, lack of coordination, and abnormal involuntary eye movements.
Because the chronic memory loss of Korsakoff syndrome often follows an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, the chronic disorder is sometimes known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
But Korsakoff syndrome can also develop in individuals who have not had a prior episode of Wernicke encephalopathy.