Wet brain syndrome is hallmarked by a particular kind of damage to the brain that occurs as a consequence of prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption. Technically known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), wet brain syndrome is the result of a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1). Thiamine, a coenzyme, is a nutrient vital for bodily functions, but unfortunately, it doesn’t occur naturally. Rather, it must be consumed to achieve the daily recommended amount.
Severe, long-term alcoholics often experience a loss of appetite as a side effect of their condition or may make poor food selections while they are chronically intoxicated. Alcohol itself also impairs the absorption of thiamine, depletes reserves stored in the liver, and conflicts with an enzyme that activates it.
The body employs thiamine to metabolize food for energy and assist with proper brain, nerve, and heart function. Several enzymes in the brain need thiamine to work efficiently, and some enzymes that need it are essential for the synthesis of brain neurochemicals. Acetylcholine (ACh), for example, is one such chemical used to transmit messages between neurons in the brain and is essential for cognition, learning, and memory.
What Causes Wet Brain Syndrome?
As an individual uses alcohol heavily over a prolonged period, and thiamine deficiency progresses, brain damage can result. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) reports that a thiamine deficiency is a relatively rare occurrence in developed nations, and usually only affects people with a severe alcohol use disorder or certain diseases, such as HIV.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome consists of two distinct but commonly co-occurring diseases—Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Wernicke’s encephalopathy results in neurological symptoms associated with biochemical lesions in regions of the CNS (central nervous system). It most often affects certain areas of the brain, including the thalamus and hypothalamus, which both play a vital role in memory.
Korsakoff’s psychosis is a chronic condition that often develops after Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Korsakoff’s psychosis manifests as a result of irreversible damage to the regions of the brain responsible for memory.
Signs and Symptoms of Wet Brain Syndrome
Effects that result from wet brain syndrome will vary depending on whether the individual is currently suffering from Wernicke’s encephalopathy or Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy can lead to the following symptoms:
- Impaired memory
- Loss of mental activity that may lead to coma and death
- Ataxia (impaired muscle coordination) resulting in a slow or unsteady gait
- Vision changes, including double vision, droopy eyelids, and erratic back-and-forth eye movements
When Korsakoff’s psychosis onsets, the person suffering may lose the capacity to form new memories, experience profound memory loss, and encounter both visual and auditory hallucinations.
The main symptoms of alcoholic Korsakoff syndrome include the following:
- Confabulation (fabricated or misinterpreted memories)
- Lack of insight
- Anterograde or retrograde amnesia
- Fixation amnesia (short-term memory loss)
- Very Limited ability to engage in conversation
The NIAAA estimates that about 85% of individuals who have an addiction to alcohol and Wernicke’s encephalopathy will also go on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis as a consequence.
How Common Is Wet Brain Syndrome?
According to the NIAAA, as many as 80% of people with an alcohol use disorder also experience a thiamine deficiency. The National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD) estimates that Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome affects between 1-2% of the American population. The disorder occurs more often among men than women and is evenly distributed between the ages of 30-70.
However, it is not known precisely how many individuals suffer from Wernicke-Korsakoff as a result of alcoholism, because many of those who suffer most severely from the disease are homeless and cannot (or do not) seek medical help for their condition.
How Is Wet Brain Syndrome Diagnosed?
There is no single diagnostic test employed for all suspected cases of wet brain syndrome. Instead, a health professional will identify a thiamine deficiency based on a patient’s behavior, physical appearance, and motor coordination. If a doctor is aware of a patient’s alcohol use disorder, and he or she presents with symptoms of wet brain syndrome, further testing can be conducted.
The patient will need to have an in-depth examination of the neurological system. A physician will also examine the individual’s eyes for abnormalities and test his or her reflexes for diminished responses.
People who suffer from wet brain syndrome also tend to have reduced muscle mass and weakness because thiamine is also partly responsible for the development of muscle tissue. And because the condition typically alters a person’s gait, the physician will also assess a patient’s ability to ambulate.
Often, those with the disease will have an elevated heart rate. Body temperature and blood pressure may be lowered because the disorder affects areas of the brain responsible for managing these essential functions.
Statistics issued by Merck Manuals report that the mortality rate of people who have Wernicke’s encephalopathy is between 10-20%. Of those who survive, 80% will also progressively develop Korsakoff’s psychosis. Without treatment, the disorder will continue to get worse and can lead to coma or death.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome isn’t wholly curable, but with treatment, health providers are often able to slow or stop its progression. Treatment can assist with several aspects of the condition, but certain severe complications, including memory loss, may be permanent after the disease has advanced.
As with most serious health conditions, early detection is crucial. The sooner the disorder is identified, the more potential there is to reduce and reverse some of the damage. Therefore, an individual who suspects that he or she (or a loved one) has developed Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome should seek professional treatment immediately.
How Is Wet Brain Syndrome Treated?
In the treatment of wet brain syndrome, a doctor will likely prescribe medications to control symptoms such as rapid eye movement. The patient will also be shown different ways to increase thiamine in their body. They may also be prescribed a vitamin supplement to boost these levels, either to be consumed orally or possibly via intravenous injections.
Supplementing thiamine may improve specific symptoms of wet brain syndrome, including the following:
- Vision and eye movement
- Impaired muscle coordination
Of note, thiamine supplementation will probably not improve memory or intellectual abilities. That said, those with wet brain syndrome are urged to seek professional treatment for their alcoholism—if they haven’t already—to halt or slow the disease’s progression.
Complications of Wet Brain Syndrome
In addition to the possibility of coma and death, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can lead to irreversible trauma to the brain, which results in memory impairments and diminished cognitive abilities. An individual may also encounter challenges with interpersonal interactions, and issues with gait can lead to falls and injuries.
People who suffer from the condition can also develop permanent alcoholic neuropathy, which adversely affects the CNS. Unfortunately, those who develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are also likely to have a shorter lifespan.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Individuals who are active alcoholics are placing themselves at risk for severe medical complications, such as nutritional deficiencies and many other dietary or gastrointestinal problems. In some instances, dietary deficiencies can result in long-term consequences, such as wet brain syndrome.
Alcoholism is not curable, but it is definitely treatable. Just Believe Recovery uses an integrated approach to addiction treatment that includes evidence-based approaches, such as psychotherapy, peer group support, counseling, aftercare planning, and much more.
Coping with addiction is often a life-long endeavor, but no one should have to do it alone. Contact us as soon as possible and discover how we can help you reclaim the healthy and fulfilling life you deserve!