Wernicke’s encephalopathy

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a neuropsychiatric disorder caused by thiamine deficiency which is most commonly seen in alcoholics. Rarer causes include persistent vomiting, stomach cancer, and dietary deficiency. A classic triad of ophthalmoplegia/nystagmus, ataxia and encephalopathy may occur.

In Wernicke’s encephalopathy, petechial haemorrhages occur in a variety of structures in the brain including the mamillary bodies and ventricle walls.


  • oculomotor dysfunction
    • nystagmus (the most common ocular sign)
    • ophthalmoplegia: lateral rectus palsy, conjugate gaze palsy
  • gait ataxia
  • encephalopathy: confusion, disorientation, indifference, and inattentiveness
  • peripheral sensory neuropathy


  • decreased red cell transketolase
  • MRI

Treatment is with urgent replacement of thiamine

Relationship with Korsakoff syndrome

If not treated Korsakoff’s syndrome may develop as well. This is termed Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and is characterised by the addition of antero- and retrograde amnesia and confabulation in addition to the above symptoms.

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