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Keywords:

  • hunger strike;
  • Wernicke's encephalopathy;
  • Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome

We investigated neurological findings in 41 prisoners (mean age: 28.6) who participated in a hunger strike between 2000 and 2002. All cases were evaluated using neuropsychological, neuroradiological, and electrophysiological methods. The total duration of fasting ranged from 130 to 324 days (mean 199 days). All cases had 200–600 mg/day thiamine orally for 60–294 days (mean 156) during the hunger strike, and had neurological findings consistent with Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome. All 41 patients exhibited altered consciousness which lasted from 3 to 31 days. All patients also presented gaze-evoked horizontal nystagmus and truncal ataxia. Paralysis of lateral rectus muscles was found in 14. Amnesia was apparent in all cases. Abnormal nerve conduction study parameters were not found in the patient group, but the amplitude of compound muscle action potential of the median and fibular nerves and sensory nerve action potential amplitude of the sural nerve were lower than the control group, and distal motor latency of the posterior tibial nerve was significantly prolonged as compared with the control group. The latency of visual evoked potential was prolonged in 22 cases. Somatosensory evoked potential (P37) was prolonged but not statistically significant. Our most significant finding was that the effect of hunger was more prominent on the central nervous system than on the neuromuscular system, despite the fact that all patients were taking thiamine. In our opinion, partial recovery of neurological, and neurocognitive signs in prolonged hunger could be a result of permanent neurological injury.