What Is Wet Brain? – Wet brain is a certain kind of damage to the brain that develops after chronic, excessive alcohol use. Also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, wet brain is caused by a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Thiamine is a vitamin vital for the body that doesn’t occur naturally—a person must ingest it to reach their daily recommended amount.
Levels of thiamine in a person’s body decrease as a result of a deficient diet, which sometimes occurs among those who chronically abuse alcohol. Also, alcohol impedes the absorption of thiamine and reduces the reserve of thiamine stored in the liver. Alcohol also interferes with an enzyme that switches thiamine into an active state.
Thiamine is a coenzyme employed by the body to metabolize food for energy and to maintain proper heart, nerve, and brain function. Several enzymes in the brain require thiamine to work correctly, and some enzymes that need thiamine are essential for the synthesis of brain neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine (ACh). ACh is used to carry messages between neurons in the brain and is vital for cognition, learning, and memory.
What Causes Wet Brain?
As a person abuses alcohol in excess over a prolonged period and thiamine deficiency persists, brain damage occurs. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) states that thiamine deficiency is an uncommon occurrence in developed countries other than among individuals with a severe alcohol use disorder or diseases such as HIV.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome consists of two individual conditions—Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Wernicke’s encephalopathy results in neurological symptoms caused by biochemical lesions in areas of the central nervous system. It most often affects specific areas of the brain, including the thalamus and hypothalamus, which play a role in memory.
Korsakoff’s psychosis is a chronic condition that tends to develop after Wernicke’s encephalopathy symptoms abate. Korsakoff’s psychosis occurs as a result of irreversible damage to the regions of the brain responsible for memory.
Wet Brain Symptoms
The signs and symptoms that occur as a result of wet brain vary depending on whether the individual is currently suffering from Wernicke’s encephalopathy or Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy produces a few characteristic symptoms, including the following:
- Memory impairments
- A loss of mental activity that can lead to coma or death
- Impaired muscle coordination (ataxia), leading to a slow or unsteady gait
Furthermore, some people also experience vision changes, such as unusual, back-and-forth eye movements, double vision, and droopy eyelids.
When Korsakoff’s psychosis onsets, people may lose the ability to create new memories, experience profound memory loss, and encounter both auditory and visual hallucinations.
The primary symptoms of alcoholic Korsakoff syndrome include the following:
- Lack of insight
- Anterograde and/or retrograde amnesia
- Fixation amnesia (very short-term memory loss)
- Minimal content in conversation
The NIAAA estimates that around 85% of those who suffer from alcohol addiction and have Wernicke’s encephalopathy will develop Korsakoff’s psychosis as a result.
How Common Is Wet Brain?
According to the NIAAA, as many as 80% of those with an alcohol use disorder also have a thiamine deficiency. The National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD) states that Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome occurs in 1-2% of the U.S. population. The condition affects more males than females and is equally distributed between ages 30-70.
Currently, it is not accurately known how many people have Wernicke-Korsakoff as a result of alcoholism, since many of the individuals who suffer most severely from the disease are homeless and do not seek medical care.
How Is Wet Brain Diagnosed?
There is no specific diagnostic test used for all suspected cases of wet brain. Generally, a health professional will identify a vitamin deficiency based on a patient’s physical appearance, behavior, and gait. If a doctor is aware of a patient’s alcohol use disorder and he or she exhibits symptoms of wet brain, further testing can be ordered.
Because there is not one standard test used to diagnose the condition, the physician will instead perform a thorough examination of the neurological system. The doctor will examine the eyes to identify problems such as back-and-forth movement and the misalignment of pupils. He or she will also check the person’s reflexes, as individuals with the condition typically have abnormal or diminished reactions.
People who suffer from wet brain also tend to have reduced muscle mass and weakness because thiamine is, in part, responsible for the development of muscle tissue. The disease alters a person’s gait, so the doctor will also evaluate how the person walks.
Often, those with the condition have an accelerated heart rate, also known as tachycardia. Blood pressure and body temperature may also be reduced because the disease affects the parts of the brain responsible for managing these vital functions.
Statistics issued by Merck Manuals estimate that the mortality rate of those who have Wernicke’s encephalopathy is between 10-20%. Of the patients who survive, 80% will also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis. Without treatment, the disease will continue to get worse and can lead to coma or death.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome isn’t fully curable, but with treatment, health providers are often able to slow or stop its progression. Treatment can help with different aspects of the disease, but some severe complications such as memory loss aren’t always reversible after the disease advances.
However, as with most diseases, early detection is crucial and has the potential to minimize and reverse some of the damage. Therefore, those who suspect that they or someone they love are suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome should seek treatment immediately to reduce the amount of brain damage incurred.
How Is Wet Brain Treated?
To treat wet brain, a physician will usually prescribe medications to control symptoms such as rapid eye movement. He or she will instruct the patient on various ways to increase thiamine in their body and may prescribe a vitamin supplement to raise these levels. The person may be given vitamin B1 through oral medication or intravenous injection.
Supplementing thiamine may improve certain symptoms of wet brain including:
- Vision and eye movement
- Muscle coordination
Of note, thiamine supplementation will not likely improve memory or intellect. Those with wet brain are highly encouraged to seek treatment for their alcoholism—if they haven’t already—to stop or delay the progression of the disease.
Wet Brain Complications
In addition to the potential for coma or death, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome causes permanent, irreversible damage to the brain, which impairs the person’s memory and cognition capabilities. A person may also encounter challenges with social and personal interactions, and impaired coordination and problems with gait can result in falls and injuries.
Those who have the condition can also develop permanent alcoholic neuropathy, which affects the central nervous system. Unfortunately, people who develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome also tend to have shortened lifespans.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Those who suffer from alcohol use disorder put themselves at risk for medical complications, such as liver damage, nutritional deficits, and an increased risk of several types of cancer. In some cases, nutritional deficiencies can result in long-term consequences, including wet brain.
Alcoholism is not curable, per se, but it is undoubtedly treatable. Harmony Recovery Center employs a comprehensive approach to addiction treatment that includes research-based therapeutic modalities, such as psychotherapy, group support, individual and family counseling, and aftercare planning services.
These services are facilitated by caring addiction professionals who provide clients with the tools, resources, and support they need to recover and begin to enjoy long-lasting wellness and sobriety.
Coping with addiction is a life-long process, but you don’t have to do it alone. Contact us today and discover how we can help you achieve the life you deserve!