According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 14.5 million (nearly 15 million) people ages 12 and older (5.3 percent of this age group) had an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Alcohol use disorder, often referred to as alcoholism, is a serious and complex disorder characterized by loss of control over the amount and frequency that you drink. Without professional treatment, many alcoholics get worse over time.
Long-term alcohol abuse is harmful to your mental and physical health, and some of the effects of alcohol are irreversible. One of the most shocking and misunderstood effects of chronic alcohol abuse is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), commonly known as “wet brain.”
What is Wet Brain?
Wet brain is a slang term for a brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). The disorder is a direct result of vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency which is seen in people who struggle with poor nutrition and alcohol use disorder.
Up to 80% of people with alcohol use disorder become thiamine deficient, and about 2% of people worldwide have WKS.[2,3]
In the acute stage, WKS is manageable. Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize their symptoms until they reach the chronic stage, during which it becomes life-threatening.
While WKS can develop in anyone suffering a thiamine deficiency, it is most common in chronic drinkers, which is why it is casually called “wet brain.”
Truly, WKS is a combination of two conditions:
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy
- Korsakoff’s psychosis
Wernicke’s encephalopathy develops first. It is a severe, yet temporary condition that is characterized by vision changes, abnormal eye movements, poor or loss of muscular coordination, and mental confusion. Left untreated, Wernicke’s encephalopathy often progresses into Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Korsakoff’s psychosis is a chronic condition that leads to significant cognitive impairment. People with this condition may have difficulty forming new memories, recalling old ones, learning new things, and functioning normally.
Symptoms of Wet Brain
Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis have their own unique symptoms. First, the three primary symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are:
- Mental confusion and apathy
- Vision disturbances and eye movement dysfunction
- Loss of muscle control when moving
People may also experience drooping eyelids, delayed eye movements, or a staggering walk. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms can mimic severe alcohol intoxication, or even go unnoticed if a person is intoxicated.
Between 80-90% of people who struggle with alcoholism and develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy end up developing Korsakoff’s psychosis, a neuropsychiatric disorder that can resemble dementia. Symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis include:
- Changes in behavior
Other symptoms that are often present in people struggling with wet brain include:
- Lies or storytelling
- Short attention span
Wet brain is also sometimes called “alcoholic dementia” because many of these symptoms are also seen in people suffering from dementia.
Risk Factors for Wet Brain
While excess drinking leading to thiamine deficiency is the cause of WKS, certain risk factors that prevent your body from getting sufficient vitamin B1 can also increase the risk of the disorder. These risk factors include:
- Advanced stages of cancer
- Kidney failure
- Heart failure that is being treated with diuretic therapy
Can Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome Be Treated?
In the early stages, or before Korsakoff’s psychosis develops, WKS can potentially be reversed. How effective treatment is depends on how severe a person’s symptoms are and whether or not they stop drinking. Unfortunately, it is rare for people to make a full recovery. Many people do see improvement with thiamine therapy after 1-2 weeks.
Stopping drinking and taking potent thiamine supplements is the standard treatment for wet brain. If the oral supplements are not sufficient, thiamine may be given as an intramuscular or intravenous injection. Additional vitamins and supplements may be given based on the patient’s unique situation.
Thiamine therapy has been found to improve coordination and eye functions while also reducing confusion and memory issues.
Sadly, late diagnosis and treatment have very little success because thiamine treatment cannot reverse memory loss or other symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Ways people can cope with Wernicke-Korsakoff’s psychosis include:
- Staying abstinent from alcohol
- Eating a balanced diet
- Consuming foods that are rich in vitamin B1 (thiamine)
Find Treatment for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Today
Avoiding the long-term effects of alcohol is best accomplished through abstinence. If you or someone you love is having trouble stopping drinking, you may need professional treatment.
Here at Moving Mountains Recovery, our New Jersey alcohol rehab center can help you detox safely, overcome your alcoholism, and embrace life in sobriety. The sooner you get help, the better. Don’t wait any longer. Call now to get started.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): Alcohol Facts and Statistics, Retrieved Jan 2023 from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, October 2004: Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain, Retrieved Jan 2023 from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.pdf
- Cleveland Clinic, April 2022: Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, Retrieved Jan 2023 from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22687-wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome
- S Vasan, A Kumar, Published in the National Library of Medicine, August 2022: Wernicke Encephalopathy, Retrieved Jan 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470344/
- MedlinePlus: Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, Retrieved Jan 2023 from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000771.htm
- K D Wiley, M Gupta, Published in the National Library of Medicine, January 2022: Vitamin B1 Thiamine Deficiency, Retrieved Jan 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537204/