Thiamin Deficiency Can Cause Brain Damage
A deficiency of thiamin (vitamin B) can
lead to loss of cognition, memory decrease and potential brain
damage, according to two new studies. Alcoholics, anorexics and
senior citizens appear to be at a particularly high risk of
suffering from thiamin deficiency-related side effects.
The new studies which examined the neurological disorders Wernicke's
encephalopathy (WE) and Korsakoff's Syndrome (KS) jointly showed
that mammillary (nipple-shaped) bodies in the brain may shrink as
cognition and memory decrease. In fact, abnormal mammillary bodies
were detected in at least "99 percent" of thousands of autopsied
brains in people who suffered from WE or KS, according to Dr. Clive
Harper, professor of neuropathology at the University of Sydney and
Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Australia, and lead author of the
Edith V. Sullivan, associate professor of psychiatry, Stanford
University School of Medicine, Palo Alto, Calif., and lead author of
the first study, said the findings are significant because they
indicate that nutritional factors are important in maintaining
healthy conditions in the brain. Both studies were published in the
October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
WE is a potentially fatal disorder caused by thiamin deficiency and
is characterized by double vision, mental confusion, muscle weakness
and unsteady gait. WE most often occurs in people who have consumed
large quantities of alcohol because they often do not eat properly,
said Dr. Peter Martin of the Vanderbilt University School of
Medicine, Nashville, Tenn.
Sullivan said recent studies show that young women suffering from
anorexia nervosa may also develop WE, due to nutritional
deficiencies inflicted by persistent vomiting or prolonged periods
of not eating. Additionally, senior citizens are at risk of WE, as
increasing numbers of elderly people appear to be apathetic about
the quality of their diet, may not be eating enough or may forget to
Alcohol is also a common cause of WE because it impedes the
digestive tract's normal absorption of nutrients. Nerve, muscle and
brain tissue are especially sensitive to low levels of vitamins,
nutrients and minerals, and they can deteriorate when deprived.
Martin said that the body's stores of thiamin can be depleted in as
little as three weeks. If untreated, a person with WE can develop
permanent memory damage in the form of KS, and in extreme cases,
fall into a coma and die. However, unlike other disease states
attributed to alcohol abuse, WE appears to be reversible by adding
thiamin to the diet.
KS occurs in patients who repeatedly suffer from WE. However, KS is
distinguished from WE when a person experiences amnesia, and is
identified when the confusion associated with WE clears following
thiamin treatment. Though some people who suffer from KS may respond
to thiamin treatment, the condition is usually considered incurable.
SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (1999; 23)
c. 1999 Medical Tribune News Service