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Thiamin Deficiency Can Cause Brain Damage

Reuters News

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 second study.

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 eat.

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


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