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Wet Brain & How It Develops

Authored by Granite Recovery Centers    Reviewed by James Gamache    Last Updated: March 23rd, 2022


James Gamache Medical Reviewer
Jim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) and Licensed Masters Level Addictions Counselor (MLADC). He has been working in the field of mental health/addiction treatment since 1995. Jim earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services from Springfield College in 2000, and a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University in 2002. In 2002 Jim was hired by the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester holding the position of Clinical Case Manager. From 2004-2019, Jim was employed at WestBridge Inc. During his time at WestBridge, Jim held the following positions; Clinician, Team Leader, Director, & Chief Operations Officer. In 2019 Jim transitioned employment to GateHouse Treatment Center as the Clinical Director for 10 months. In October of 2020 Jim transitioned to Granite Recovery Centers and is currently serving as the Senior VP of Clinical Services and Quality Assurance.

A forgotten occasion, confusion over simple tasks, and repeated stories are examples of innocent memory lapses. However, heavy drinkers may evolve from memory loss to staggering movements, violent muscle cramps, slurred speech, and hallucination. These are symptoms of brain damage, sometimes known as “wet brain.” This condition may not be as common as pancreatitis, cardiovascular disease, and cirrhosis, but it can still occur when one consumes alcohol excessively.

It is possible to prevent wet brain before it evolves into its second stage, and it can be treated if you consult a doctor as soon as symptoms arise. However, it can progress into Korsakoff’s psychosis, which is a potentially fatal condition without treatment. This article will provide important information on wet brain, including its causes, signs and symptoms, prognosis, and available treatment options.

 

What Is Wet Brain?

The term “wet brain” is mostly used to refer to Korsakoff’s psychosis or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, “wet brain” can carry stigma around it by wrongfully implying that people contract it willfully. Therefore, the more accurate term Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is used during treatment.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or WKS, is related to the long-term deficiency of thiamine or vitamin B1. It is a brain disorder usually seen in people who go through malnutrition and is a common complication of regular heavy drinking. Up to 80% of people who are addicted to alcohol develop vitamin B1 deficiency.

The symptoms of WKS are reversible when noted early. However, if left untreated, it can result in difficulties in muscle coordination, hallucination, and even irreversible confusion. WKS can damage the thalamus, hypothalamus, and the lower parts of the brain. It may result in memory problems or permanent brain damage.

 

Evolution of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is comprised of two conditions that happen one after the other. The first stage is called Wernicke’s Encephalopathy, a temporary neurological disorder. Its symptoms include vision disturbance and eye movement dysfunction, apathy and mental confusion, and loss of muscular coordination while walking. These are the three hallmark signs of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy.

A person doesn’t have to experience or show all three signs to have the disorder, however. Studies show that many cases go undiagnosed or get the wrong diagnosis because the patients do not exhibit all three signs. This makes it very important to do a holistic evaluation before giving or dismissing a diagnosis.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy is treatable if diagnosed in the early stages. If not, a person will always walk with a stagger or, in advanced stages, lose their walking ability. Eyelids may also start drooping, and the person may have involuntary eye movements. They may also have difficulties tracking objects as the nerves controlling the eyes lose functionality and become paralyzed.

 

Korsakoff Psychosis

Studies show that 88% of people who use alcohol and have Wernicke’s Encephalopathy eventually develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, a form of neuropsychiatric dementia. It results when Wernicke’s Encephalopathy is not treated in its early stages. A person can develop a wide range of symptoms that can impair their ability to function properly. The condition is also referred to as alcohol amnestic disorder or alcoholic dementia.

The symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis include a change in one’s behavior, amnesia, and hallucinations. It damages the parts of the brain that are in charge of controlling memory. Therefore, one may have difficulty remembering past information, a condition known as retrograde amnesia.

The individual may also have challenges in forming new memories, a condition known as anterograde amnesia. These conditions result in the braining form stories to make up for the memory gaps, a process known as confabulation.

People with Korsakoff’s psychosis may not realize the changes and symptoms or even know they are sick. Nonetheless, they will exhibit behavioral changes such as getting irritable, displaying less emotion, and becoming apathetic.

 

Who Gets Wet Brain?

People who take excessive amounts of alcohol regularly are at a higher risk of contracting Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, excessive drinking is not the sole cause. It is a complex condition affected by different factors, and drinking alcohol worsens the situation. Two individuals who drink the same amount of alcohol over the same period of time may not both get WKS; one might develop it while the other doesn’t.

The other causes of WKS include the following.

  1. Poor nutrition: Thiamine, or vitamin B1, is not naturally present in the body. Instead, it’s acquired by eating nutritious foods such as dried beans, whole-grain cereals, poultry, and nuts. Alcohol in the body irritates and damages the digestive tract lining and tissues, resulting in the difficulty of absorption and digestion of nutrients from food.
  2. Health problems: Health conditions such as heart failure, long-term dialysis, HIV or AIDS, and cancer increase the risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. They also lead to the deficiency of vitamin B1 in the body.
  3. Increased vomiting: Frequent vomiting could severely deplete the vitamins and nutrients one has in the body. This includes vitamin B1. Consumption of alcohol increases the chances of vomiting due to regular hangovers and alcohol poisoning. Therefore, if a person drinks alcohol regularly, they are at a greater risk of contracting Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome than those who don’t drink.

 

How Does Long-term Alcohol Consumption Affect the Brain?

The body acquires vitamin B1 from what you eat. For most healthy adults, this is a non-issue. Vitamin B1 is acquired from chicken, eggs, whole grains, kale, pork, asparagus, beef, and potatoes.

People who abuse alcohol may not get adequate nutrition in their diet because they spend so much time drinking. They typically don’t take in adequate levels of thiamine to meet their nutritional need. This deprives their bodies and particularly cells of vitamin B1, putting them at risk of thiamine deficiency.

In some cases, the alcohol inflames the stomach lining, preventing the body from effectively absorbing vitamins. Alcohol largely reduces the amount of vitamin B1 that the body absorbs from your diet.

 

Importance of Vitamin B1

Every single cell in the body requires vitamin B1 to perform its functions. The purpose of vitamin B1 is to facilitate the breaking down of carbohydrates and processing proteins and fats. It helps turn food into usable energy for each cell. This includes the heart cells, nerve cells, and brain cells.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, excessive alcohol consumption can reduce enzyme activity and thiamine deficiency. This also includes inadequate dietary intake and thiamine absorption from the gastrointestinal tract. It may also impair the utilization of thiamine in the cells.

Vitamin B1 is necessary to build enzymes that convert sugar into energy, create chemical messengers and build genetic material. Lack of thiamine means the brain cells cannot produce glucose, depriving the brain of energy and functionality. This is what leads to a person developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

 

Sign and Symptoms of Wet Brain

In many ways, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome causes a person to behave similarly to a person with dementia. It could also be misread as intoxication. However, the symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome persist even when one has not drunk anything recently.

Symptoms occur suddenly and present themselves in two distinct stages.

 

Stage one of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome shows the following symptoms:

  • Paralysis of eye movements and drowsiness
  • Rapid eye movements
  • Confusion, inattentiveness, and irritation
  • Reduced sense of smell
  • Hallucinations, both auditory and visual
  • Ataxia, which is an unsteady gait caused by a lack of muscle coordination or weakness in the limbs
  • Delirium tremens
  • Double vision
  • Eyelid drooping
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • A sudden reduction in mental ability
  • Leg tremors

 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Progression

People in stage two of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may show the following symptoms:

  • Mild to severe alcohol-related memory loss
  • Dementia
  • Disorientation concerning place and time
  • Hallucinations
  • Misinterpreted or distorted memories
  • Made up information and stories to compensate for memory gaps
  • Mental disturbances
  • Impaired learning ability
  • Coma in the advanced stages

According to research, 1-2% of the population contracts Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Women between 35 and 70 years old suffering from alcohol abuse are slightly less affected than men in the same age group.

About 27% of those who develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome require long-term treatment in a hospital setting as it is not usually diagnosed easily. There exists no single test for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, but testing for the levels of vitamin B1 in the blood is a way of finding out whether one has the disease or not.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, when caught early enough, approximately 25% of people will recover, 50% will improve, and 25% will stay the same. Therefore, it is essential to seek medical help if you experience any of the symptoms above. If the syndrome progress, it could be fatal. Failure of accurate and early diagnosis leads to long-term brain damage in 75% of cases and death in 21%.

 

Can You Recover From Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

WKS is a reversible condition. It all depends on how early one begins treatment, the severity of one’s symptoms, and the type of treatment that one receives.

The ideal time to start treatment is right after you see the symptoms. Failure to seek medication may risk progressing to stage two, where it becomes harmful and potentially fatal. According to MedlinePlus, the primary treatment goals are to control the symptoms of wet brain and prevent the disorder from worsening.

Some people make a full recovery. There are several methods for achieving treatment. These methods include the following:

  • Complete abstinence from alcohol
  • Vitamin B1 supplements
  • Ingestion of a nutritious and well-balanced diet

Vitamin B1 therapy offers varying levels of improvement in exhibited symptoms after 5-12 days. A high dose of thiamine supplementation is one of the most effective methods for preventing and reversing symptoms, especially in the early stages of WKS. It may be taken as an injection or an oral supplement. This treatment has been seen to increase coordination, reduce memory problems and improve eye function.

If a person with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is in a coma or unconscious, they will need special care and longer treatment. However, this depends on the severity of their symptoms.

 

Alcohol Detox and Rehab Treatment

Even after one has been diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, it may still be hard to quit drinking alcohol. This is mostly the case if the person is dependent on or addicted to alcohol. Once the immediate symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome have been treated, you can begin to focus on preventing brain damage and further memory loss by eliminating alcohol from your lifestyle.

Getting sober and completely abstaining from alcohol will help prevent the loss of brain functions and further nerve damage. However, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe, sometimes deadly. For this reason, it is advised that you detox under medical supervision. Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in the event of an emergency.

 

Medically Assisted Alcohol Detox

A medically assisted alcohol detox program can help you rid your body of alcohol safely. An alcohol detox program on its own, however, is not a long-term solution for sobriety. Following this up with addiction treatment and an alcohol rehab program can help you establish skills and strategies to maintaining sobriety.

Granite Recovery Center offers a range of programs that treat alcohol addiction assist people in staying sober. Our treatment programs provide comprehensive care, including a mental health program facilitated by qualified staff who are always available and happy to assist you.

You should seek professional help if you or your loved one is diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Reach out today before you develop chronic conditions, and our health care and recovery experts will help guide you in the next steps.

Contact Granite Recovery Center today for more information on our individualized drug addiction recovery program.

At Granite Recovery Centers, we want to provide accurate information about health and addiction so that our readers can make informed decisions.

We have credentialed medical doctors & clinicians who specialize in addiction treatment review the information on our website before it is published. We use credible sources such as government websites and journal articles when citing statistics or other medically related topics.