Wet brain syndrome is characterized by a specific kind of damage to the brain that develops as a result of prolonged, excessive alcohol consumption. Technically known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, wet brain is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine). Vitamin B1 is essential for the body, but unfortunately, it doesn’t occur naturally. Instead, it must be ingested to reach the daily recommended amount.
Severe alcoholics often experience a lack of appetite as a result of their condition, or they may make poor food choices while they are chronically impaired. Alcohol itself also hinders the absorption of B1 and depletes reserves stored in the liver. What’s more, alcohol also conflicts with an enzyme that activates it.
Vitamin B1 is a coenzyme used by the body to break down food for energy and to promote proper brain, heart, and nerve function. Several enzymes in the brain need vitamin B1 to work efficiently, and some enzymes that require it are vital for the synthesis of brain neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine (ACh). ACh is employed to transmit messages between neurons in the brain and is, therefore, essential for learning, cognition, and memory.
What Causes Wet Brain Syndrome?
As a person abuses alcohol excessive over an extended period, and thiamine deficiency continues, brain damage can occur. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) reports that a B1 deficiency is a relatively uncommon occurrence in developed countries, and usually only affects individuals with a severe alcohol use disorder or certain diseases, namely HIV.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is characterized by two distinct but commonly co-occurring conditions—Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Wernicke’s encephalopathy causes neurological symptoms related to biochemical lesions in areas of the central nervous system (CNS). It most often affects specific regions of the brain, such as the thalamus and hypothalamus, which both play a role in memory.
Korsakoff’s psychosis is a chronic disorder that tends to develop after Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Korsakoff’s psychosis occurs as a result of permanent damage to the areas of the brain responsible for memory.
Symptoms of Wet Brain Syndrome
The signs and symptoms that result from wet brain syndrome vary depending on whether the person is currently experiencing Wernicke’s encephalopathy or Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy can cause the following symptoms:
- Memory impairments
- A loss of mental activity that can result in coma and death
- Ataxia, or impaired muscle coordination, leading to a slow or unsteady gait
- Vision changes, such as double vision, droopy eyelids, and back-and-forth eye movements
When Korsakoff’s psychosis occurs, individuals may lose the ability to form new memories, suffer from profound memory loss, and experience both auditory and visual hallucinations.
The primary symptoms of alcoholic Korsakoff syndrome includes the following:
- Confabulation (fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories)
- Lack of insight
- Anterograde or retrograde amnesia
- Fixation amnesia (very short-term memory loss)
- Minimal content in conversation
The NIAAA estimates that about 85% of those who have an addiction to alcohol and Wernicke’s encephalopathy will also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis as a result.
How Common Is Wet Brain Syndrome?
According to the NIAAA, up to 80% of those with an alcohol use disorder also have a B1 deficiency. The National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD) reports that Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome affects 1-2% of the U.S. population. The disorder occurs more among males than females and is equally distributed between ages 30-70.
Currently, it is not known how many people have Wernicke-Korsakoff as a result of alcohol abuse, because many who suffer most severely from the condition are homeless and cannot (or do not) seek medical treatment.
How Is Wet Brain Syndrome Diagnosed?
There is no standard diagnostic test used for all suspected cases of wet brain syndrome. Often, a health provider will identify a vitamin B deficiency based on a patient’s behavior, physical appearance, and gait. If a physician is aware of a patient’s alcoholism, and he or she exhibits symptoms of wet brain syndrome, further testing can be performed.
The patient will need to have a thorough examination of the neurological system. A doctor will also examine the person’s eyes for abnormalities and check his or her reflexes for diminished reactions.
People who experience wet brain syndrome also tend to have decreased muscle mass and weakness because Vitamin B! is also partially responsible for the development of muscle tissue. The disease typically alters a person’s gait, so the doctor will also evaluate a person’s ability to ambulate.
Often, those with the disorder will have an elevated heart rate (tachycardia). Body temperature and blood pressure may be reduced because the condition affects regions of the brain responsible for regulating these vital functions.
Statistics put forth by Merck Manuals estimate that the mortality rate of individuals who have Wernicke’s encephalopathy is somewhere between 10-20%. Of those who survive, 80% will go on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis. Without treatment, the condition will continue to worsen and can result in coma or death.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome isn’t entirely curable, but with treatment, health professionals are often able to slow or halt its progression. Treatment can help with several different aspects of the disease, but certain severe complications, such as memory loss, may be irreversible after the condition has advanced.
As with most diseases, early detection is critical and has the potential to mitigate and even reverse some of the damage that has been done. Therefore, a person who suspects that he or she (or a loved one) is suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome should seek treatment immediately.
How Is Wet Brain Syndrome Treated?
For the treatment of wet brain syndrome, a physician will usually prescribe medications to manage symptoms such as rapid eye movement. The patient will also be shown various ways to increase vitamin B1 in their body and may be prescribed a vitamin supplement to boost these levels, either through oral medication or possibly intravenous injections.
Supplementing Vitamin B1 may improve certain symptoms of wet brain syndrome, including the following:
- Vision and eye movement
- Muscle coordination
Of note, Vitamin B1 supplementation will probably not improve memory or intellectual capabilities. Those with wet brain syndrome are urged to seek treatment for their alcohol addiction—if they haven’t already—to halt or delay the disease’s progression.
Complications of Wet Brain Syndrome
In addition to the potential for coma and death, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome results in permanent damage to the brain, which leads to memory impairments and reduced cognitive capabilities. A person may also experience challenges with social and interpersonal interactions, and problems with gait can result in falls and injuries.
Those who have the disease can also develop irreversible alcoholic neuropathy, which affects the CNS. Unfortunately, people who develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are also expected to have a shortened lifespan.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Those who are active alcoholics place themselves at risk for medical complications, such as nutritional deficits and many other dietary or gastrointestinal issues. In some cases, dietary deficiencies can lead to long-term consequences, including wet brain syndrome.
Alcoholism is not curable, but it is undoubtedly treatable. Recovery in Tune offers a comprehensive approach to addiction treatment in outpatient and partial hospitalization settings. Out services include evidence-based therapeutic modalities, such as psychotherapy, group support, counseling, and much more.
Coping with addiction is a life-long process, but, fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. Contact us as soon as possible to discover how we can help you achieve the fulfilling life you deserve!