Steve Harwell, the former lead singer of US pop-rock band Smash Mouth, has died aged 56.

Harwell had faced numerous other health issues in recent years, since a 2013 diagnosis of the heart disease cardiomyopathy and the neurological disorder, acute Wernicke encephalopathy, which affected his speech and memory. He also suffered from alcoholism.

What is acute Wernicke encephalopathy?

Acute Wernicke encephalopathy, often simply referred to as Wernicke encephalopathy (WE), is a neurological disorder characterized by a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1). This condition typically arises due to chronic alcoholism, but it can also result from other factors such as malnutrition, gastrointestinal surgeries, and certain medical conditions that impair thiamine absorption. The name “Wernicke encephalopathy” is derived from Carl Wernicke, the German neurologist who first described the syndrome in 1881.

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The hallmark symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include confusion, ataxia (loss of coordination), and ophthalmoplegia (paralysis of the eye muscles), particularly affecting the lateral rectus muscle. Patients may also exhibit a wide range of neuropsychiatric symptoms such as memory disturbances, disorientation, and personality changes. If left untreated, Wernicke encephalopathy can progress to Korsakoff syndrome, a chronic and debilitating condition characterized by severe memory impairment and confabulation (inventing false memories to compensate for gaps in recollection).

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for the management of Wernicke encephalopathy. Thiamine replacement therapy is the primary intervention, administered intravenously to ensure rapid absorption. However, if treatment is delayed, the neurological damage may become irreversible.

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Preventing Wernicke encephalopathy involves addressing its underlying causes, such as alcohol dependence or malnutrition. Patients with a history of chronic alcoholism should receive thiamine supplementation regularly, as alcohol can interfere with thiamine absorption and utilization in the body.