Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a cluster of symptoms attributed to a disorder of vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, manifesting as a combined presentation of alcohol-induced Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) and Korsakoff syndrome (KS). 1 While there is consensus on the characteristic presentation and symptoms of WE, there is a lack of agreement on the exact definition of KS. The classic triad describing WE consists of ataxia, ophthalmoplegia, and confusion; however, reports now suggest that a majority of patients exhibit only 1 or 2 of the elements of the triad. KS is often seen as a condition of chronic thiamine deficiency manifesting as memory impairment alongside a cognitive and behavioral decline, with no clear consensus on the sequence of appearance of symptoms. The typical relationship is thought to be a progression of WE to KS if untreated.
From a mental health perspective, WE presents with delirium and confusion whereas KS manifests with irreversible dementia and a cognitive deterioration. Though it is commonly taught that KS-induced memory loss is permanent due to neuronal damage (classically identified as damage to the mammillary bodies - though other structures have been implicated as well), more recent research suggest otherwise. 2 A review published in 2018, for example, gathered several case reports and case series that suggest significant improvement in memory and cognition attributed to behavioral and pharmacologic interventions, indicating this as an area deserving of further study. 3 About 20% of patients diagnosed with WE by autopsy exhibited none of the classical triad symptoms prior to death. 4 Hence, these conditions are surmised to be significantly underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed.
Though consensus regarding the appropriate treatment regimen is lacking for WE, a common protocol consists of high-dose parenteral thiamine for 4 to 7 days. 5 This is usually followed by daily oral thiamine repletion until the patient either achieves complete abstinence from alcohol (ideal) or decreases consumption. The goal is to allow thiamine stores to replete and maintain at minimum required body levels moving forward. In this case report, we highlight the utilization of a long-term, unconventional intramuscular (IM) thiamine repletion regimen to ensure maintenance of a patient’s mental status, highlighting discrepancies in our understanding of the mechanisms at play in WE and its treatment.
A 65-year-old male patient with a more than 3-decade history of daily hard liquor intake, multiple psychiatric hospitalizations for WE, and a prior suicide attempt, presented to the emergency department (ED) with increased frequency of falls, poor oral intake, confabulation, and diminished verbal communication. A chart review revealed memory impairment alongside the diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder and WE, and confusion that was responsive to thiamine administration as well as a history of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, osteoarthritis, and urinary retention secondary to benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
On examination the patient was found to be disoriented with a clouded sensorium. While the history of heavy daily alcohol use was clear in the chart and confirmed by other sources, it appeared unlikely that the patient had been using alcohol in the preceding month due to restricted access in his most recent living environment (a shared apartment with daily nursing assistance). He reported no lightheadedness, dizziness, palpitations, numbness, tingling, or any head trauma. He also negated the presence of active mood symptoms, auditory or visual hallucinations or suicidal ideation (SI)