Contributors:Tanner Marshall, MS, Evan Debevec-McKenney, Ursula Florjanczyk, MScBMC, Royce Rajan, MD, MBA
Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome is named after Carl Wernicke and Sergei Korsakoff, the physicians who discovered the condition in the late 1800s.
Wernicke's encephalopathy is the acute, reversible stage of the syndrome, and if left untreated it can later lead to Korsakoff syndrome, which is chronic and irreversible.
The enzyme thiamine pyrophosphate synthetase transfers a pyrophosphate group from ATP to thiamine, turning it into the coenzyme thiamine pyrophosphate - which is the metabolically active form of thiamine.
Now, as a coenzyme, thiamine pyrophosphate functions to assist other enzymes such as pyruvate dehydrogenase, alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase, and transketolase carry out reactions, particularly regarding glucose metabolism.
In some neurons, thiamine even helps with propagation of a neural impulses down the axon.
Given it’s multifaceted role, a deficiency of thiamine can have serious consequences.
Specifically, thiamine deficiency impairs glucose metabolism and this leads to a decrease in cellular energy.
One of the major causes of thiamine deficiency, and therefore Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome, is alcohol abuse.
Alcohol leads to decreased thiamine levels in various ways. First, alcohol interferes with the conversion of thiamine to its active form, thiamine pyrophosphate by blocking the phosphorylation of thiamine.
Second, thiamine is normally absorbed through the first portion of the small intestine called the duodenum.
However, ethanol prevents this absorption process, and it is believed that alcohol does this by reducing the gene expression for thiamine transporter-1 within the intestinal brush border.
Third, chronic alcohol abuse can lead to fatty liver or cirrhosis which interferes with the storage of thiamine within the liver.
The brain is particularly vulnerable to impaired glucose metabolism since it utilizes so much energy.
Early on in thiamine deficiency, the cerebellum gets affected and that can affect movement and balance.
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