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Wernicke's encephalopathy is a serious neurological disorder that results primarily from a deficiency of the nutrient thiamine, also known as vitamin B-1. It was named for Dr. Carl Wernicke, who first described it in 1881. It is comprised of three main symptoms: mental confusion, lack of muscle coordination, and a paralysis of the muscles which control eye movements. Wernicke's encephalopathy most often presents in alcoholics, but can be present in those suffering from malnutrition, those with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and others.
Thiamine affects the way that the human body metabolizes carbohydrates, which is why a relative deficiency of it is often seen in alcoholics, since alcohol is a carbohydrate. The first course of treatment for this type of encephalopathy involves administering thiamine intravenously to the patient. If left untreated, it can progress to a condition known as Korsakoff's syndrome, which is even more serious, leading to memory loss and possible brain damage. This condition can further progress into a coma, and death.
Wernicke's encephalopathy is not related to the region of the brain called Wernicke's area, which is associated with speech and language, although both are named after the same doctor. Certain abnormalities in the brain, visual on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, can also be part of the set of typical symptoms of this disorder.
As with most medical conditions, this disorder can be treated most successfully when it is caught early. Proper treatment can reverse it before serious, perhaps permanent effects set in. Long-term disabilities, including amnesia, can result from the condition, which can seriously impair a person's ability to function in society. It is sometimes necessary to admit patients into an institution for permanent care. A complete and speedy recovery is possible, however, even if some minor neurological symptoms persist in the short term after treatment.
Most cases of this disorder are rooted in chronic alcohol abuse. Alcohol can, over time, severely impair the body's ability to absorb thiamine, gradually leading to a deficiency of this nutrient. When someone who is known to abuse alcohol has symptoms such as confusion and gait ataxia, meaning lack of coordination in walking, Wernicke's encephalopathy should be considered as a possible cause.
The average age of persons who present with this disorder is 50, though it can occur in someone of any age, including infancy. It does not appear that any race or gender is more susceptible to this type of encephalopathy than any other. However, it is more often seen in men, probably because men are statistically much more likely to abuse alcohol than women are.–
My wife is a survivor of Wernicke's Encephalopathy. I posted several videos online about our experience.
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