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Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) is a neuropsychiatric disorder caused by thiamine deficiency, and is sometimes overlooked because of the diversity of clinical symptoms.
From a series of WE patients with cancer, we report a lung cancer patient who developed WE, the main symptom of which was agitation.
A 50-year-old woman with lung cancer was referred to our psycho-oncology clinic because of agitation lasting for three days. No laboratory findings or drugs explaining her agitation were identified. Although the patient did not develop delirium, ophthalmoplegia, or ataxia, WE was suspected because she experienced a loss of appetite loss lasting 5 weeks. This diagnosis was supported by abnormal serum thiamine and disappearance of agitation one hour after intravenous thiamine administration.
Significance of results
This report emphasizes the clinical diversity of WE and indicates the limits of the ability to diagnose WE from typical clinical symptoms. The presence of a loss of appetite for more than two weeks may be the key to the accurate diagnosis of WE.
Wernicke's encephalopathy (WE) is a neuropsychiatric disorder caused by a thiamine deficiency. Although WE has been recognized in cancer patients, it can be overlooked because many patients do not exhibit symptoms that are typical of WE, such as delirium, ataxia, or ocular palsy. Furthermore, outpatients with WE who intermittently present at psycho-oncology clinics have not been described as far as we can ascertain.
This report describes two patients who did not exhibit the complete classic triad of symptoms among a series with cancer and WE, and who attended a psycho-oncology outpatient clinic.
Case 1, a 76-year-old woman with pancreatic cancer and liver metastasis, periodically attended a psycho-oncology outpatient clinic. She presented with delirium and ataxia as well as appetite loss that had persisted for 8 weeks. We suspected WE, which was confirmed by low serum thiamine levels and the disappearance of delirium after thiamine administration. Case 2, a 79-year-old man with advanced stomach cancer, was referred to a psycho-oncology outpatient clinic with depression that had persisted for about 1 month. He also had appetite loss that had persisted for several weeks. He became delirious during the first visit to the outpatient clinic. Our initial suspicion of WE was confirmed by low serum thiamine levels and the disappearance of delirium after thiamine administration. The key indicator of a diagnosis of WE in both patients was appetite loss.
Significance of results
This report emphasizes awareness of WE in the outpatient setting, even when patients do not exhibit the classical triad of WE. Appetite loss might be the key to a diagnosis of WE in the absence of other causes of delirium.
Thiamine is an essential coenzyme for oxidative metabolisms; however, it is not synthesized in the human body, and the average thiamine storage capacity is approximately 18 days. Therefore, thiamine deficiency (TD) can occur in any condition of unbalanced nutrition. If TD is left untreated, it causes the neuropsychiatric disorder Wernicke encephalopathy (WE). Although WE is a medical emergency, it is sometimes overlooked because most patients with WE do not exhibit all of the typical symptoms, including delirium, ataxia, and ophthalmoplegia. If all of the typical clinical symptoms of WE are absent, diagnosis of TD or WE becomes more difficult.
From a series of cancer patients, we reported three patients who developed TD without the typical clinical symptoms of WE.
A 69-year-old woman with pancreatic body cancer receiving chemotherapy with paclitaxel and gemcitabine for six months. Her performance status (PS) was 1. A detailed interview revealed that she had appetite loss for six months. Another 69-year-old woman with ovarian cancer received nedaplatin; her PS was 0. A detailed interview revealed that she had appetite loss for three months. A 67-year-old woman with colon cancer receiving ramucirumab in combination with second-line fluorouracil with folinic acid and irinotecan. Her PS was 1. A detailed interview revealed that she had appetite loss for three weeks. None exhibited typical clinical signs of WE, but they developed appetite loss for six months, three months, and three weeks, respectively. The diagnosis of TD was supported by abnormally low serum thiamine levels.
Significance of the results
This report emphasizes the possibility of TD in cancer patients even when patients do not develop typical clinical signs of WE. The presence of appetite loss for more than two weeks may aid in diagnosing TD. Patients receiving chemotherapy may be at greater risk for developing TD.
Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) is a neuropsychiatric disorder caused by thiamine deficiency. Several reports of WE in cancer patients are known. WE is sometimes overlooked because most patients do not exhibit its typical symptoms (e.g., delirium, ataxia, ocular palsy). If delirium is not present, a diagnosis of WE is difficult because delirium is the hallmark symptom of WE.
Taken from a series on WE in cancer, we report two patients who developed WE without delirium during periodic psycho-oncology outpatient visits.
Case 1. A 61-year-old woman with non-Hodgkin lymphoma who was periodically attending a psycho-oncology outpatient clinic developed an unsteady gait. WE was suspected because she also developed appetite loss for two weeks, and we could find no other laboratory findings to explain her unsteady gait. Our diagnosis was supported by abnormal serum thiamine and disappearance of the gait disturbance after intravenous thiamine administration. Case 2. A 50-year-old woman with breast carcinoma with bone metastasis developed an unsteady gait. WE was suspected because she also developed loss of appetite for two weeks, and no other laboratory findings could explain her unsteady gait. The diagnosis was supported by abnormal serum thiamine and disappearance of the gait disturbance after administration of intravenous thiamine.
Significance of Results:
Our report emphasizes the importance of being aware of WE, even when patients do not present with delirium. The presence of loss of appetite for more than two weeks may be the key to a diagnosis of WE.
Few reports of Wernicke encephalopathy in oncological settings have been published. Some cases of Wernicke encephalopathy are related to appetite loss; however, the degree to which loss of appetite leads to thiamine deficiency is not known.
A 63-year-old female with advanced cancer of the external genitalia was referred for psychiatric consultation because of disorientation, insomnia, and bizarre behaviors. Her symptoms fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for delirium. Routine laboratory examinations did not reveal the cause of the delirium. Thiamine deficiency was suspected because appetite loss had continued for 19 days since she had been admitted to hospital.
Intravenous administration of thiamine resulted in recovery from the delirium within three days. Serum thiamine level was found to be 16 ng/ml (normal range: 24–66 ng/ml). The clinical findings, the low level of thiamine in the serum, and the effective alleviation of delirious symptoms after thiamine administration fulfilled Francis's criteria for delirium induced by thiamine deficiency.
Significance of results:
Clinicians must be aware of the possibility of Wernicke encephalopathy in cancer patients, especially in those with loss of appetite for longer than 18 days. The degree of appetite loss in such patients might serve as a reference. Early detection and intervention may alleviate the symptoms of delirium and prevent irreversible brain damage.
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