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Overview of the chronic neurologic complications of alcohol

Michael E Charness, MD
Section Editor
Michael J Aminoff, MD, DSc
Deputy Editor
Janet L Wilterdink, MD


Acute alcohol intoxication is associated with a number of complications including accidents, traffic fatalities, domestic violence, homicide, and suicide. Alcohol dependence is also a chronic disease, associated with malnutrition, trauma, and a wide variety of central nervous system disorders. The chronic neurologic complications of alcohol abuse are reviewed here. The alcohol withdrawal syndromes are discussed separately. (See "Management of moderate and severe alcohol withdrawal syndromes".)

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is the best known neurologic complication of thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency [1]. The term refers to two different syndromes, each representing a different stage of the disease. Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) is an acute syndrome requiring emergent treatment to prevent death and neurologic morbidity. Korsakoff syndrome (KS) refers to a chronic neurologic condition that usually occurs as a consequence of WE.


Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) is a common, acute neurologic disorder caused by thiamine deficiency [1]. It is manifested by a clinical triad of encephalopathy, oculomotor dysfunction, and gait ataxia.

This disorder is discussed in more detail elsewhere. (See "Wernicke encephalopathy".)


Korsakoff syndrome (KS) is a late, neuropsychiatric manifestation of Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) in which there is a striking disorder of selective anterograde and retrograde amnesia. Although this memory disorder can occur in a variety of conditions that damage the medial temporal lobes, KS is seen most frequently in alcohol abusers after an episode of WE, and most patients with KS show typical WE lesions [1]. (See "Wernicke encephalopathy", section on 'Clinical course and prognosis'.)

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: May 17, 2012.
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