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Alcohol and the Brain: Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Abstract: The Wernicke - Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder caused by alcohol abuse, can be treated if caught in an early stage.

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Alcohol and the Brain: Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

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Question(s): 
Written by: Wendy Moelker, Psychologist in charge, tutor, Emergis center for mental health care, Goes, the Netherlands.
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 02 Mar 2012.

What are the effects of alcohol on the brain. What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and what can you do for somebody who has this disease?

Answer:

Wernicke is the preliminary stage of the Korsakoff syndrome; in this stage the disease can be cured by healthy living and by stopping alcohol abuse before it turns into the more serious Korsakoff syndrome.

Korsakoff is a permanent brain disorder caused by chronic alcohol abuse. Particularly, chronic alcohol abuse and a lack of vitamin B lead to the Korsakoff syndrome. How to deal with a Korsakoff patient depends on the condition of the patient. Most Korsakoff patients have a history of 20 to 30 years of severe alcohol abuse. It is estimated that 1% of all alcoholics get the Korsakoff syndrome. The people around the addict often think that the Korsakoff syndrome appears instantly, but usually there has been an ongoing process of increased memory disorders and neglect.

The disease has a so-called acute phase in which the patient is very sick, suffers from eyelid drooping and is confused. The patient suffers from severe short-term and long-term memory loss. Some patients start to make up all kind of stories to fill in gaps in their memory. The problem with Korsakoff patients is that they don't recognize that they are sick. Dealing with the patient depends on all kind of things. If the patient doesn't drink anymore, there is sufficient care and there are possibilities for all kind of activities, the patient may stay at home, but a patient who keeps drinking will have to be hospitalized.

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