Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory disorder caused by a severe deficiency of thiamine that is most commonly observed in alcoholics. However, some have proposed that focal structural lesions disrupting memory circuits—in particular, the mammillary bodies, the mammillothalamic tract, and the anterior thalamus—can give rise to this amnestic syndrome. Here, the authors present 4 patients with reversible Korsakoff syndromes caused by suprasellar retrochiasmatic lesions compressing the mammillary bodies and adjacent caudal hypothalamic structures.
Three of the patients were found to have large pituitary macroadenomas in their workup for memory deficiency and cognitive decline with minimal visual symptoms. These tumors extended superiorly into the suprasellar region in a retrochiasmatic position and caused significant mass effect in the bilateral mammillary bodies in the base of the brain. These 3 patients had complete and rapid resolution of amnestic problems shortly after initiation of treatment, consisting of resection in 1 case of nonfunctioning pituitary adenoma or cabergoline therapy in 2 cases of prolactinoma. The fourth patient presented with bizarre and hostile behavior along with significant memory deficits and was found to have a large cystic craniopharyngioma filling the third ventricle and compressing the midline diencephalic structures. This patient underwent cyst fenestration and tumor debulking, with a rapid improvement in his mental status. The rapid and dramatic memory improvement observed in all of these cases is probably due to a reduction in the pressure imposed by the lesions on structures contiguous to the third ventricle, rather than a direct destructive effect of the tumor, and highlights the essential role of the caudal diencephalic structures—mainly the mammillary bodies—in memory function.
In summary, large pituitary lesions with suprasellar retrochiasmatic extension and third ventricular craniopharyngiomas can cause severe Korsakoff-like amnestic syndromes, probably because of bilateral pressure on or damage to mammillary bodies, anterior thalamic nuclei, or their major connections. Neuropsychiatric symptoms may rapidly and completely reverse shortly after initiation of therapy via surgical decompression of tumors or pharmacological treatment of prolactinomas. Early identification of these lesions with timely treatment can lead to a favorable prognosis for this severe neuropsychiatric disorder.