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Korsakoff’s syndrome: a critical review

Authors Arts NJM, Walvoort SJW, Kessels RPC

Received 18 July 2017

Accepted for publication 4 October 2017

Published 27 November 2017 Volume 2017:13 Pages 2875—2890


Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single anonymous peer review

Peer reviewer comments 2

Editor who approved publication: Dr Roger Pinder

Nicolaas JM Arts,1,2 Serge JW Walvoort,1 Roy PC Kessels1,3,4

1Centre of Excellence for Korsakoff and Alcohol-Related Cognitive Disorders, Vincent van Gogh Institute for Psychiatry, Venray, 2Neuropsychiatry Center Thalamus, Institution for Integrated Mental Health Care Pro Persona, Wolfheze, 3Department of Neuropsychology and Rehabilitation Psychology, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University, 4Department of Medical Psychology, Radboud University Medical Center, Nijmegen, the Netherlands

In this review, we present a survey on Korsakoff’s syndrome (KS), a residual syndrome in patients who suffered from a Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) that is predominantly characterized by global amnesia, and in more severe cases also by cognitive and behavioral dysfunction. We describe the history of KS and its definition, its epidemiology, and the lack of consensus criteria for its diagnosis. The cognitive and behavioral symptoms of KS, which include anterograde and retrograde amnesia, executive dysfunction, confabulation, apathy, as well as affective and social-cognitive impairments, are discussed. Moreover, recent insights into the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms of these symptoms are presented. In addition, the evidence so far on the etiology of KS is examined, highlighting the role of thiamine and alcohol and discussing the continuity hypothesis. Furthermore, the neuropathology of KS is reviewed, focusing on abnormalities in the diencephalon, including the mammillary bodies and thalamic nuclei. Pharmacological treatment options and nonpharmacological interventions, such as those based on cognitive rehabilitation, are discussed. Our review shows that thiamine deficiency (TD) is a crucial factor in the etiology of KS. Although alcohol abuse is by far the most important context in which TD occurs, there is no convincing evidence for an essential contribution of ethanol neurotoxicity (EN) to the development of WE or to the progression of WE to KS. Future research on the postmortem histopathological analysis of brain tissues of KS patients is crucial for the advancement of our knowledge of KS, especially for associating its symptoms with lesions in various thalamic nuclei. A necessary requirement for the advancement of studies on KS is the broad acceptance of a comprehensive definition and definite diagnostic criteria. Therefore, in this review, we propose such a definition of KS and draft outlines for prospective diagnostic criteria.

Keywords: Korsakoff’s syndrome, alcohol amnestic disorder, Wernicke encephalopathy, thiamine deficiency, ethanol neurotoxicity, thalamus, memory, executive function, history

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