Current progress toward the prevention of the wernicke-korsakoff syndrome

David M. Bishai, Louis P. Bozzetti

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10 Scopus citations


The Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a rare neurological disorder which strikes primarily alcoholics and is caused, at least in part, by insufficient bioavailability of thiamin. Because of the low cost of preventing this disease by adding thiamin to alcoholic beverages relative to the cost of the long-term care of patients with the chronic phase of the disease, there has been a need to determine the feasibility of this particular preventive strategy. Recent data demonstrating normal levels of erythrocyte transketolase in patients presenting with Wernicke's encephalopathy has led some to question the link between thiamin deficiency, and the development of the syndrome, despite the fact that virtually all patients with Wernicke's encephalopathy will respond favorably to parenteral thiamin, and the evidence that rats deprived of thiamin develop lesions that are characteristic of the disease. Thiamin is nontoxic, is stable in alcoholic beverages, and is undetectable in beer to professional taste-testers at levels theoretically sufficient to guarantee adequate absorption. Although there is much inter-subject variability it appears that thiamin at therapeutic concentrations can be absorbed by the jejunum in the presence of alcohol. Evidence that patients with the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome have an altered thiamin-requiring isoenzyme and evidence that six patients with Wernicke's encephalopathy failed to respond to oral thiamin has caused some doubt as to whether the target population would be able to benefit from the measure. Other determinants of thiamin utilization, such as folate and magnesium status, also may figure in the etiology of the disease.Although the prevention of the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome by the fortification of alcoholic beverages remains a theoretically attractive preventive strategy we conclude that there are some unanswered questions which may delay the implementation of the policy until more is known about the pathophysiology of the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)315-323
Number of pages9
JournalAlcohol and Alcoholism
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 1986
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Toxicology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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