Impairment of Thiamine Transport at the GUT-BBB-AXIS Contributes to Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

P. M. Abdul-Muneer, Saleena Alikunju, Heather Schuetz, Adam M. Szlachetka, Xiaotang Ma, James Haorah

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Wernicke’s encephalopathy, a common neurological disease, is caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Neuropathy resulting from thiamine deficiency is a hallmark of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome in chronic alcohol users. The underlying mechanisms of this deficiency and progression of neuropathy remain to be understood. To uncover the unknown mechanisms of thiamine deficiency in alcohol abuse, we used chronic alcohol consumption or thiamine deficiency diet ingestion in animal models. Observations from animal models were validated in primary human neuronal culture for neurodegenerative process. We employed radio-labeled bio-distribution of thiamine, qualitative and quantitative analyses of the various biomarkers and neurodegenerative process. In the present studies, we established that disruption of thiamine transport across the intestinal gut blood-brain barrier axis as the cause of thiamine deficiency in the brain for neurodegeneration. We found that reduction in thiamine transport across these interfaces was the cause of reduction in the synthesis of thiamine pyrophosphate (TPP), an active cofactor for pyruvate dehydrogenase E1α (PDHE1α). Our findings revealed that decrease in the levels of PDHE1α cofactors switched on the activation of PD kinase (PDK) in the brain, thereby triggering the neuronal phosphorylation of PDHE1α (p-PDHE1α). Dysfunctional phosphorylated PDHE1α causes the reduction of mitochondrial aerobic respiration that led to neurodegeneration. We concluded that impairment of thiamine transport across the gut-BBB-axis that led to insufficient TPP synthesis was critical to Wernicke-neuropathy, which could be effectively prevented by stabilizing the thiamine transporters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5937-5950
Number of pages14
JournalMolecular Neurobiology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)


  • Alcohol
  • Gut-BBB-axis
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Pyruvate dehydrogenase
  • Thiamine deficiency/transporters
  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy


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