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Dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is caused by regularly drinking too much over several years.

When consumed regularly and at excessive levels alcohol prevents neurons from regenerating.

Symptoms of ARBD include:

  • Poor planning and organisational skills

  • Problems with decision-making, judgement and risk assessment

  • Impulsivity and difficulty controlling emotions

  • Problems with attention and slower reasoning

  • Lack of sensitivity to others feelings

  • Socially inappropriate behaviour


Excessive alcohol consumption over a long period can reduce the volume of the brain’s white matter. White matter helps transmit signals to and from different regions of the brain so any reduction in matter impacts the way it functions.

As a result, long term alcohol misuse can lead to Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

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Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Vitamin B deficiencies are common in alcohol users with poor diet and nutrition. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a type of brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B-1, or thiamine.

It consists of two separate conditions that can occur at the same time, Wernicke’s Disease (WD) and Korsakoff Syndrome.

Symptoms of Wernicke’s Disease include:

  • Confusion

  • Decreased consciousness level including unconsciousness

  • Memory disturbance

  • Unsteadiness

  • Problems with vision

Korsakoff’s Syndrome is characterised by:

  • Difficulty in learning new information

  • Exaggerated story telling

  • Emotional disturbances; apprehension, anxiety, excitability

  • Hallucinations (sometimes)

Chronic alcohol misuse is the leading cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and it can be devastating. This is largely impacted by the poor diet and nutrition that typically coincides with dependent drinking. Left untreated, mortality rates are high, but by recognising the symptoms early and getting advice individuals can have a good chance of improving. It is important that people get treatment as early as possible when showing signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff. 25% will not recover.


If you think you may be dependent on alcohol you should arrange to speak to your GP, nurse or an alcohol specialist today. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and should be overseen by a professional.

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