“Wet brain” is a term used to describe Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome – a type of brain damage that is caused by alcohol abuse. Wet brain is linked to excessive alcohol abuse and an incredibly serious condition.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) published in 2013 that 86.8 percent of American adults aged 18 or older had consumed alcohol at some time in their lifetime. Drinking alcohol in moderation is not generally a bad thing, and alcohol is even touted as having certain health benefits. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans establishes that drinking in moderation is one drink per day for a woman and two per day for a man, and this is generally considered safe. Anything beyond these levels may constitute binge or heavy drinking, and repeated episodes of heavy or binge drinking may lead to problem drinking or an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
The NIAAA reports that 16.6 million American adults aged 18 and older and 697,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 battled an AUD in 2013. Long-term alcohol abuse, or alcoholism, has a multitude of negative health risks and side effects. The NIAAA publishes that up to 80 percent of alcoholics may have a thiamine (B1) deficiency, for example. Thiamine is an essential vitamin responsible for helping the body to successfully break down and utilize sugars in order to produce energy. Thiamine levels are depleted through a poor diet, which is often caused by regular alcohol abuse as alcoholics may make poor nutritional and lifestyle choices. In addition, alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include nausea and vomiting, further depleting essential vitamins and minerals.
Thiamine deficiency can cause brain damage and result in Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), “wet brain.” It is most commonly the result of alcohol abuse. It is difficult to quantify how many people may suffer from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, as the symptoms may be similar to those of alcohol withdrawal or intoxication at times. In addition, many alcoholics may be homeless or have a diminished social circle or support system due to their alcoholism, resulting in fewer formal diagnoses of WKS.
This brain disorder comes on suddenly and is often considered to be “alcohol-related dementia,” as brain damage can cause difficulties with learning and memory functions that may be permanent and irreversible. Oxford University Press estimated that between 10 and 24 percent of brain damage and dementia cases may be related to alcohol abuse. The Alzheimer’s Society reports that “wet brain” may affect around two percent of the general population.
WKS is actually two different conditions that are commonly considered different stages of one disorder: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis.
Wernicke encephalopathy usually manifests first and is characterized by bleeding in the brain that may cause the following symptoms:
The main three symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy, mental confusion, abnormal eye movements, and ataxia (staggering gait), are only all present in about 10 percent of patients, making diagnosis extremely difficult, according to an article published in the Swiss Medical Review. Wernicke encephalopathy is generally short-lived, and the NIAAA estimates that around 80-90 percent of alcoholics will go on to develop Korsakoff psychosis.
This second stage of WKS can be debilitating and permanent if not treated properly and early. Korsakoff psychosis symptoms include:
The memory loss associated with WKS usually affects the ability to create new memories, termed anterograde amnesia, as opposed to difficulties remembering past events, termed retrograde amnesia. While memory loss of things or circumstances before the onset of WKS may also be affected, someone suffering from wet brain is more likely to struggle with memories formed after Korsakoff psychosis takes hold. For example, someone with WKS may be able to have a lengthy conversation with you about a childhood event but then not remember even talking to you later that same day.
In addition to these symptoms, someone who has developed WKS from chronic alcohol abuse may also suffer from alcohol withdrawal symptoms that can include tremors, sweating, and other unpleasant side effects. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may have a genetic component, making some people more susceptible than others. While the most common cause of WKS may be chronic and regular alcohol abuse, anorexia or other disorders that can deplete thiamine may also be involved in its onset. The rapid introduction of glucose to a thiamine-deficient brain may cause wet brain as well.
For instance, if you are a chronic and heavy drinker who makes poor nutritional choices and eats foods high in sugar, this can speed up the potential onset of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Chronic alcohol abuse damages the cerebellum, which is the region in the brain responsible for coordination, movement, and even potentially some functions related to memory and learning. Depriving the brain of thiamine for a long period of time damages this region, and left untreated and unchecked, the brain damage can be permanent.
Wernicke encephalopathy doesn’t have to continue on to Korsakoff psychosis. It can be arrested and reversed if diagnosed and treated early on with thiamine supplements, healthy diet changes, and a reduction in alcohol consumption. Often, healthy lifestyle changes may include detoxification services and therapy in order to be effective long-term in reducing problem drinking.
Treatment can reverse some of the physical symptoms, including vision and abnormal eye movement, coordination, and balance issues, although the brain damage related to Korsakoff psychosis, like cognition and memory loss, may be permanent. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, however, WKS symptoms will not get worse over time if support and treatment are perpetuated. While an Alzheimer’s patient may continue to deteriorate regardless of the treatment offered, those suffering from alcohol-related dementia may not. Only about a quarter of those with Korsakoff syndrome will require long-term and residential care as WKS may be acute and well-advanced. About half will at least make a partial recovery and may be able to live at home with support services. Another quarter will make a successful recovery, the Alzheimer’s Society publishes. Side effects related to WKS can be stopped, and symptoms can improve over time.
Treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome often begins in a hospital setting or specialized facility where patients can successfully and safely detox from alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be dangerous and even life-threatening if not managed correctly. Medications are often necessary during detox to manage the withdrawal side effects, and 24-hour medical monitoring and supervision are recommended. Thiamine may be introduced by intravenous injections and a follow up with oral B-complex vitamin supplements may be beneficial.
Without treatment and with continual alcohol abuse, WKS will progress and may even be fatal. Counseling and continued support help to encourage a healthy lifestyle free from alcohol, including a nutritious diet plan. Memory and cognitive issues may be slower to recover depending on the severity and duration of thiamine deficiency and the resulting brain damage, but over time, with the correct diagnosis and treatment plan, improvement may be possible.
The best way to manage wet brain is through preventative measures. Regulating alcohol abuse and avoiding malnutrition through healthy eating habits are key.
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