Alcohol addiction can have a severe impact on a person’s physical health, and that includes brain health. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), otherwise known as wet brain or wet brain syndrome, is one example of the damage caused by alcohol use disorder. According to the National Organization of Rare Disorders, most individuals who develop wet brain syndrome have sustained chronic alcohol addiction. WKS is one of the less common side effects of alcoholism, but it does occur and has severe consequences for a person’s health and quality of life.
The Two Parts of Wet Brain Syndrome
Wet brain is an umbrella term for two severe and life-threatening brain disorders, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. The symptoms of wet brain stem from a thiamine deficiency (vitamin B1) that is typically related to heavy and prolonged alcohol use.
Stage One: Wernicke’s Encephalopathy
Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE) is a neurological disorder distinguished by three main characteristics:
- A loss of muscular coordination
- Mental confusion
- Disturbances in vision or eye movements
People with WE experience paralyzation in the nerves that control their eyes. This can lead to drooping eyelids and other issues related to eye movement.
All three hallmarks of Wernicke’s encephalopathy do not need to be present for doctors to diagnose the disorder. Sadly, many cases go undiagnosed for a long period because the three main symptoms are not evident. This proves how important it is for people with long-term alcoholism to have regular and complete medical evaluations.
Stage Two: Korsakoff’s Psychosis
Approximately 85% of individuals with WE caused by alcoholism will develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The normal progression of the disease is known as wet brain syndrome. It begins with visual and muscular problems and progresses to a specific type of dementia.
Korsakoff’s psychosis is a type of neuropsychiatric dementia. Experts define neuropsychiatric dementia as a group of mood disturbances that includes but is not limited to aggression, apathy, depression, and psychosis. This type of dementia is associated with an accelerated progression to severe dementia and death.
While the first part of wet brain syndrome—Wernicke’s encephalopathy—results from a thiamine deficiency, Korsakoff’s psychosis is caused by untreated Wernicke’s encephalopathy. In this way, the two conditions combine into what is known as Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome or wet brain.
Memory loss and other typical dementia issues are symptomatic of Korsakoff’s psychosis. People suffering from this disorder (and those who know them) may not even realize they are affected because many wet brain symptoms resemble inebriation.
What Are the Symptoms of Wet Brain Syndrome?
The symptoms related to wet brain syndrome must be considered both separately as symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis and as general symptoms of the combined Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Symptoms of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy
Wernicke’s encephalopathy symptoms generally affect the eyes, muscles, and brain. Signs of the disease include:
- Sudden and noticeable reduction in mental abilities
- Eyelid drooping
- Loss of muscle coordination
- General confusion
- Double vision
- Weakness in limbs
- Leg tremors
WE symptoms tend to appear quickly but do not necessarily progress quickly.
Symptoms of Korsakoff’s Psychosis
Korsakoff’s psychosis symptoms manifest less abruptly than those of WE and include:
- Hallucinations (visual and auditory)
- False memories (making things up)
- Memory loss
- Inability to retain new memories
As Korsakoff’s psychosis is a type of dementia, its symptoms can be misinterpreted as Alzheimer’s disease, but it is not the same.
Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome:
Together, the two stages of wet brain syndrome can cause a third set of symptoms that includes:
- Slow, unsteady gait
- Low blood pressure
- General malaise
- Fast heart rate
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can only get properly diagnosed when the patient is sober and has undergone alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms of detox and other complications related to alcohol use can mimic the symptoms of wet brain syndrome, making it easy to overlook, especially in a setting that does not specialize in addiction treatment.
What Is the Connection Between Chronic Alcohol Use and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?
What are the symptoms of wet brain vis-à-vis chronic alcohol use? One of the ways alcohol affects the body and causes the condition is by reducing the digestive system’s ability to absorb thiamine (vitamin B1). Thiamine is crucial for the proper function of neurotransmitters—the chemicals that carry the brain’s messages to other parts of the body. Thiamine also protects brain cells from injury. As mammals, we can’t manufacture our own thiamine and must get it from our diet.
Humans depend on foods that are rich in thiamin, such as:
- Red meat
- Fortified bread, cereals, and pasta
Excessive alcohol use plays a role in thiamine levels in two ways. Firstly, people who are addicted to alcohol may choose to drink overeating healthy meals or food in general. Loss of appetite is a common symptom in advanced alcoholism, resulting in profound malnutrition for many chronic drinkers. Secondly, alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb thiamine. Even if thiamine-rich foods get ingested, the body cannot make use of the nutrients.
When combined, these two factors create a dangerous deficiency of vitamins and other essential nutrients. Chronic alcohol abuse also interferes with the absorption of niacin, pyridoxine, riboflavin, vitamin B12, ascorbic acid, and fat-soluble vitamins such as A, C, D, E, and K, which can damage the brain in other ways.
Wet brain syndrome is only one of the health risks of prolonged overuse of alcohol, and it is one of the most severe health issues associated with alcoholism.
Prevention and Treatment of Wet Brain Syndrome
Potentially, patients can reverse the symptoms of WKS. Complete recovery is rare, but it is possible. Factors influencing recovery include the type of treatment the patient receives and how early in the process the treatment begins. Unfortunately, the most noticeable symptoms of wet brain syndrome do not appear until the disease has progressed significantly. Problems like confusion, blurred vision, and unsteady gait can easily be confused with the side effects of excessive alcohol use. Even if a person stops drinking as soon as they suspect symptoms, the disease may already be advanced.
Any person with a long history of alcohol abuse should be screened for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome after withdrawal.
Preventing Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Alcohol-related WKS is a preventable disease. Seeking addiction treatment before alcoholism becomes a chronic, long-term issue is the best way to prevent wet brain, liver damage, heart disease, and other life-threatening illnesses caused by alcoholism.
Adding a thiamine supplement to the diet may offer short-term benefits. However, there is no evidence to support the idea that supplements or a thiamine-rich diet will prevent the disease as long as alcohol abuse continues. Remember, it is a lack of thiamine in the diet and the inability to absorb nutrients that cause a person to develop wet brain syndrome.
Treatment for Wet Brain Syndrome
What are symptoms of wet brain you can treat? Are there any? There are. The goal of treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is to control the symptoms and prevent the disease from getting worse. Vitamin B1 injections can be effective against the symptoms if doctors catch the condition in its early stage. Complete abstinence from alcohol and nutritional therapy are also necessary for lasting recovery. Occupational and physical therapy can help sufferers regain their muscle strength and coordination.
If the syndrome has progressed to the point of putting the patient in a coma, specialized medical care will be required. However, even if WKS has not advanced to that extreme level, admittance into a rehabilitation facility or medical center may be necessary as improvement can be a prolonged process.
Finding the Right Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Because wet brain syndrome results from heavy and prolonged alcohol abuse, it can be difficult for those diagnosed with the disease to abstain from alcohol. Friends and family members may feel hopeless watching addiction destroy the health of someone they love. It can be challenging to understand how a person continues to use alcohol in the face of such a severe issue. Though some alcoholics will continue to drink, a major health crisis will motivate others to make a change.
Experts in the field of alcohol addiction treatment know that it’s never too late to enter a recovery program. That being said, it’s crucial to understand how dangerous it can be for a chronic alcoholic to stop drinking abruptly. People with severe long-term alcoholism should never try to detox alone, as alcohol detox symptoms can be extreme and even life-threatening. Medically supervised detox keeps patients safe and helps to manage the painful and frightening symptoms of detox.
Even chronic alcoholism is treatable. With medical intervention, evidence-based treatments, and the right support team, it is possible to break the cycle of addiction and regain your health. If you or someone you care about is exhibiting the symptoms of wet brain syndrome, don’t hesitate to get help. Reach out to one of the compassionate team members at The Haven today. We offer a medically supervised inpatient detox program in a safe, comfortable environment.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a serious disease that requires serious health care, but symptoms can improve with the right interventions. Early treatment and abstinence from alcohol can make all the difference.