An Overview Of Korsakoff Psychosis

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 12/10/2020

One of the most common disorders known worldwide is alcoholism. For many people, the side effects of excessive drinking are clearly defined: impaired brain functioning, negative impact on daily routine, and misguided coping methods. However, there is one more element of alcoholism that should be considered. That element is Korsakoff Psychosis.

Considered the most well-known alcohol-related brain damage disorder, Korsakoff Psychosis affects 1 in 8 people with alcoholism. The effects of this syndrome are so dangerous that if not immediately treated, some affected individuals can face hospitalization and potentially more serious consequences.

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As such, if you or a loved one is concerned about having Korsakoff’s Syndrome, then first consult a medical practitioner. They will have the best knowledge in determining the presence of Korsakoff Syndrome. But if you want to educate yourself on Korsakoff’s Syndrome, including the Korsakoff Syndrome definition, symptoms, and treatment options, then please continue reading and find out more. 

What Is Korsakoff Psychosis?

Korsakoff Psychosis is a brain disorder caused by a lack of thiamine (Vitamin B) in the brain. This disorder is typically characterized by inattentiveness and difficulty in forming short-term memories. 

The syndrome itself is part of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which typically occurs after an individual gets Wernicke’s encephalopathy. The latter is a disorder that affects the brain, and it usually develops suddenly after untreated alcohol withdrawal episodes. 

If Wernicke’s encephalopathy is not treated immediately, then a person may develop Korsakoff Syndrome. This appears gradually and affects parts of the brain that relate to short-term memory. While other functions of the brain will remain intact, such as working memory, Korsakoff syndrome can cause severe loss of short-term memory. 

What Are The Causes Of Korsakoff Psychosis?

The most commonly known cause of Korsakoff Psychosis is alcoholism. This is because consuming too much alcohol can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies in the body. Furthermore, people with alcoholism are typically low in Vitamin B, thus leading to the Vitamin B deficiency that is apparent in people with Korsakoff Psychosis. 

There are other causes to consider as well besides alcoholism. Some of these causes, but not all, are as follows:

  • Malnourishment
  • Chronic alcohol misuse
  • Side effects of chemotherapy
  • Deficiencies in one’s diet

Another factor to consider is some of the above-mentioned symptoms (namely malnourishment and diet deficiencies) can be influenced by an individual’s income status. If a person is unable to afford medical care or healthy food, they may be at a higher risk of developing Korsakoff Psychosis.

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Korsakoff Psychosis can happen to pregnant women experiencing extreme morning sickness (hyperemesis gravidarum). There are also cases of mercury poisoning, causing Korsakoff Psychosis as well.

One more thing to think about is the misdiagnosis of Korsakoff Psychosis. According to research, 25% of people with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome have been incorrectly diagnosed because their brains were not examined thoroughly with precise tools. 

Who Is At Most Risk?

The people who are at the most risk of Korsakoff Syndrome are those between the ages of 30-75.

Furthermore, males are usually at a higher risk of getting Korsakoff Psychosis than women. Additionally, there are certain age brackets that typically do not experience Korsakoff Psychosis, namely children and infants from the ages of 1-14 and elderly people over the age of 75. 

What Are The Symptoms Of Korsakoff Psychosis?

Since Korsakoff Syndrome is part of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, there are two sets of Korsakoff Psychosis symptoms. One for Wernicke Encephalopathy and the other for Korsakoff Syndrome. Here are the symptoms for each condition:

Wernicke Encephalopathy symptoms include the following:

  • A small loss of memory, along with disorientation and confusion. 
  • Malnutrition, potentially causing someone to become underweight.
  • Body weakness, such as loss of control over muscle coordination or difficulty in walking (ataxia). 
  • Some people may have involuntary eye movements or paralysis of other muscles that move the eyes without the individual’s voluntary input
  • Change in mental state, which can lead to physical outbursts
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Typically following Wernicke’s encephalopathy, Korsakoff’s Syndrome is characterized by six distinct symptoms:

  1. Anterograde amnesia
    1. This is when an individual cannot create long-term memories.
  2. Retrograde Amnesia
    1. Those with retrograde amnesia cannot recall memories that happened before the onset of amnesia
  3. Confabulation
    1. This process is when an individual fabricates memories to bridge gaps in their brain caused by blackouts
  4. A lack of insight regarding Korsakoff’s Syndrome
    1. Some people may not recognize their Korsakoff Syndrome, or they do not believe that they are exhibiting symptoms. 
  5. An individual may forget information while engaged in a conversation
    1. They may become distracted or switch topics without warning.
  6. Apathy
    1. Some people may not care as much for something they were passionate about in the past. 

In addition to the above symptoms, 80% of people with Korsakoff Psychosis also have a chronic memory disorder that continues well into the future. Additionally, fine motor functions, such as moving hands and fingers, can be diminished as well. Lastly, Korsakoff Psychosis is treatable if caught early.

Although some individuals may have a chronic memory disorder, they can still manage their life with it. So long as you play an important role in their life, they can manage any difficulties that arise. If you are concerned for yourself, then try to reach out to people whom you trust. Confide in them your experiences and let them help you on your road to recovery.

As always, if you or a loved one are concerned about Korsakoff Psychosis, then please consult a medical practitioner and listen to their advice. Before discussing your concerns with them, it may help to take a free online test and see if you potentially exhibit symptoms. Remember that these tests are not capable of officially diagnosing you or a loved one with Korsakoff Psychosis, as an official diagnosis can only come from a licensed professional. However, this online test can provide useful information about common symptoms and resources. With this in mind, click here to take a test.

How Is Korsakoff Psychosis Treated?

Since Korsakoff Psychosis is considered a serious medical emergency, the individual may first need to be hospitalized and monitored by health officials. They monitor the individual’s digestive system to make sure that it is properly digesting food.

By providing proper nutrition and hydration with steady administrations of needed nutrients, the patient can recover from the physical effects of Korsakoff Psychosis. However, these treatment options, unfortunately, do not help any amnesia or brain damage caused by Korsakoff Psychosis. 

As a result, if Korsakoff Psychosis is caught early, then patients can see improvement in the following areas:

  • Issues involving sight
  • A gradual increase in body strength
  • General confusion

For those who seek treatment but lived with Korsakoff Psychosis for a long period of time, their path to recovery is much harder. Despite these hurdles, it is still possible for them to fully recover. 

Are There Ways To Prevent Korsakoff Psychosis?

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You or a loved one can prevent the development of Korsakoff Psychosis by eating foods rich in Vitamin B. Some food that includes a healthy amount of Vitamin B are:

  • Rice
  • Peas
  • Milk
  • Oranges
  • Lean pork

If you or a loved one consume alcohol, another option could be to try drinking in moderation or making sure that your diet is balanced with food that includes Vitamin B. Even after drinking, make sure to always drink water and watch how much alcohol you consume.

The best advice is to take care of yourself. Understand your limits when it comes to drinking. Although Korsakoff Psychosis can be dangerous, you do not have to avoid drinking altogether in preventing getting the disorder, especially if you only drink during social gatherings. 

Always ask yourself if you had enough drinks for the day. It may also help to bring a trusted friend with you when you plan on consuming alcohol. They could help you make smart decisions as well as have the final say in leaving the premise if you had too much to drink. 

Often, drinking problems can be a symptom of a greater issue rather than the issue itself. Alcoholics may be simply trying to manage deeper mental health issues. But remember that avoiding these issues with alcohol does not solve them, and they continue to exist even when you avoid them. If you are suffering from alcoholism, do not feel guilty or embarrassed. The best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to remember what is most important to you and try to recover.

Conclusion

It will always be a scary experience if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of Korsakoff Psychosis or any other mental health condition for that matter. For caregivers and loved ones, it may be difficult to watch someone whom you love have to face something difficult and potentially painful.

By simply being there for your loved one, you can help with their Korsakoff Psychosis by being supportive in the best ways you can. Believe in their road to recovery, and they will reach the end, no matter the hardship.