People with low levels of vitamin B1 (thiamine) are at a higher risk of suffering from a fatal brain disorder called Wernicke encephalopathy.

According to Loyola University Medical Center researchers, untreated Wernicke encephalopathy can lead to permanent brain damage or even death.

Thiamin is one of the vitamin B compounds. The vitamin affects several biological functions. Primarily, thiamine helps cells convert carbohydrate into energy. The vitamin also helps with nerve signaling and regulation of muscle movements.

Wernicke encephalopathy is one example of the several brain diseases that are collectively reffered to as encephalopathies. Common symptoms of this disease are confusion, hallucination, vision problems such as double vision and loss of muscle co-ordination and even coma.

In developed countries, the disease usually affects alcoholics or people with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. "Particularly in those who suffer from alcoholism or AIDS, the diagnosis is missed on clinical examination in 75 to 80 percent of cases," the Loyola neurologists wrote. 

Toxic encephalopathy can be caused by illegal drugs or reaction to certain medication.

"Toxic and metabolic encephalopathies may range in severity from the acute confusional state to frank coma," researchers wrote. "As permanent injury may occur, an organized approach is needed to make an accurate and rapid diagnosis."

The researchers said that Wernicke encephalopathy is a medical emergency and requires urgent medical attention. Doctors need to administer thiamine treatment, either by injection or IV as soon as possible. Lack of adequate treatment can lead to irreversible brain damage and even death.

Wernicke encephalopathy can lead to Korsakoff syndrome (KS). People with KS have trouble remembering events. Around 80 percent of people with Wernicke encephalopathy develop KS and only about 20 percent of them recover.

The study is published in the journal Scientific American Medicine. Matthew McCoyd, MD, Sean Ruland, DO and Jose Biller, MD from Loyola University Medical Center participated in the current research.