A case of wernicke encephalopathy combined with disulfiram intoxication

Elena Tartara, Simona Fanucchi, Ignazio D'Errico, Lisa M. Farina, Francesca Casoni, Elena Sinforiani, Giuseppe Micieli, Alfredo Costa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There have been several reports of disulfiram intoxication, but little evidence of neurologic conditions resulting from disulfiram-induced brain damage combined with Wernicke encephalopathy-associated lesions. We report a rare patient with both Wernicke encephalopathy and disulfiram intoxication. This 50-year-old woman, who was taking disulfiram for chronic alcohol abuse, presented with an acute confusional state, dysarthria, nystagmus, supranuclear ophthalmoplegia, and paraparesis. Biochemical serum and cerebrospinal fluid analyses were normal. An electromyogram detected a motor polyneuropathy. Cognitive assessment revealed severe impairment of memory, attention, and logical and executive abilities. Magnetic resonance imaging with gadolinium enhancement showed brain lesions consistent with Wernicke encephalopathy, but also symmetric hyperintensities on T2-weighted images in the globus pallidus. Stopping the disulfiram and treating with hydration, high-dose thiamine supplements, and benzodiazepines significantly improved the patient's consciousness and oculomotor function. A magnetic resonance imaging scan after 1 month of treatment showed complete disappearance of the brain lesions and the hyperintensities in the globus pallidus. After a further month of intensive neurorehabilitation, the patient was able to interact with the medical staff, and her neuropsychological tests showed only mild memory impairment. Patients with alcoholism who present at emergency departments are at high risk for misdiagnosis, especially because there is no specific routine laboratory test for detecting asymptomatic disulfiram intoxication. Although uncommon, the combination of Wernicke encephalopathy and disulfiram intoxication should be suspected in patients with alcoholism. The disorder can be detected through a careful history and prompt clinical evaluation, together with characteristic magnetic resonance imaging findings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)93-98
Number of pages6
JournalCognitive and Behavioral Neurology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013


  • Alcohol
  • Disulfiram intoxication
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Wernicke encephalopathy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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