In 1881, Carl Wernicke first described an illness that consisted of paralysis of eye movements, ataxia, and mental confusion, in 3 patients. The patients, 2 males with alcoholism and a female with persistent vomiting following sulfuric acid ingestion, exhibited these findings, developed coma, and eventually died. On autopsy, Wernicke detected punctate hemorrhages affecting the gray matter around the third and fourth ventricles and aqueduct of Sylvius. He felt these to be inflammatory and therefore named the disease polioencephalitis hemorrhagica superioris.
Sergei Korsakoff, a Russian psychiatrist, described the disturbance of memory in the course of long-term alcoholism in a series of articles from 1887-1891. He termed this syndrome psychosis polyneuritica, believing that these typical memory deficits, in conjunction with polyneuropathy, represented different facets of the same disease. In 1897, Murawieff first postulated that a single etiology was responsible for both syndromes.
When persistent learning and memory deficits are present in patients with Wernicke encephalopathy (a clinical triad that classically, but not always, consists of confusion, ataxia, and nystagmus [or ophthalmoplegia]), the symptom complex is often called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Clinically, this term is best conceptualized as 2 distinct syndromes, with one being characterized by an acute/subacute confusional state and often reversible findings of Wernicke encephalopathy and the other by persistent and irreversible findings of Korsakoff dementia.