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Wet Brain Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What Is Wet Brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome)?

“Wet brain” is technically known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It is a type of brain disorder that develops due to a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency.

Its symptoms are similar to dementia. Wet brain can be caused by chronic alcohol abuse. 

Wet brain syndrome is the combination of two related conditions occurring simultaneously. They are known individually as Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome

Wernicke syndrome develops first and has three symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of physical coordination
  • Eye issues — either abnormal, involuntary movements, or paralysis. 

Without medical intervention, about 80% of affected people develop Korsakoff syndrome. The main symptom is damage to the nerves and cells of the spinal cord and the part of the brain involved with memory formation.

Specifically, the person experiences problems in learning new information or new memories, and in retrieving the old ones. 

Symptoms of Wet Brain

There are two stages of the "wet brain." The first stage is Wernicke's encephalopathy, followed by the second stage, which is Korsakoff psychosis.

The symptoms of wet brain vary depending on the degree to which the brain has been affected.

For Wernicke's encephalopathy, symptoms include:

  • Appetite loss
  • Vomiting and persistent nausea
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Unexplained giddiness
  • Insomnia
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Confusion
  • A decrease in mental activity
  • Ataxia (loss of muscle coordination)
  • Brain damage, such as cognitive impairment, forgetfulness, and memory loss

In more severe cases, or when Korsakoff’s psychosis is reached, symptoms can include:

  • Changes in vision, such as double vision
  • Abnormal eye movements or eyelids drooping
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Inability to develop new memories
  • Severe memory loss
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Confabulation or making up stories

What Causes Wet Brain?

The root cause of wet brain is thiamine deficiency.

Thiamine, also known as Vitamin B1, is an essential vitamin that must be ingested. It cannot be produced by the body like Vitamin D from the interaction between skin cells and sunlight. 

Thiamine is an essential vitamin for the functioning of brain cells. Drinking alcohol hinders thiamine absorption.

Thiamine is a critical component of many cellular processes in the body. Its deficiency can affect all organ systems, including the liver, heart, brain, and kidneys.

On top of this, many people suffering from alcoholism have poor diets. Malnutrition can further diminish thiamine levels in the body. 

Alcohol Abuse & Wet Brain Syndrome

Wet brain is sometimes described as “alcohol-related dementia.” It causes damage to the parts of the brain responsible for learning and memory functions.

In the early stages, such as in Wernickes encephalopathy, this damage is often irreversible. 

Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to poor nutrition and malabsorption. This means that your body does not take in enough nutrition to be healthy. When Korsakoff psychosis occurs, the damage becomes irreversible.

Studies have shown that alcoholics absorb less thiamine than non-alcoholics.7

Alcohol abuse is the most common cause of thiamine deficiency and wet brain.

However, alcoholism alone cannot account for the onset of wet brain. It's a complex condition brought about by a multitude of factors.

Wet brain can be difficult to diagnose. Its symptoms can resemble alcohol withdrawal or intoxication.

Those suffering from the condition often have trouble identifying and formally diagnosing it.

Complications of Wet Brain Syndrome

Untreated wet brain syndrome can lead to serious complications that get worse progressively.

The most severe of these complications is the progression into Korsakoff’s psychosis. At this point, the brain is irreparably damaged and suffers memory problems, hallucinations, and changes in behavior. 

In very severe cases, the physical complication of wet brain syndrome can lead to a loss of brain function that results in coma or even death.

Is Wet Brain Reversible?

It is possible to reverse the effects of Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome. Brain function can at least partially return within one-to-six months.

Unfortunately, few make a full recovery. It all depends on:

  • The severity of the case
  • How early treatment starts
  • What type of treatment medical professionals use

Early intervention is the best way to increase the body's ability to restore normal function.

Wet Brain Treatment

The primary goal of diagnosing and treating wet brain syndrome is to lessen the symptoms and prevent the disorder from progressing.

Wet brain needs to be treated as soon as possible.

Early-stage treatment can limit and even reverse the harmful effects of thiamine deficiency.

There are three main methods for early-stage treatment, which should all be applied together:

  • Vitamin B1/Thiamine supplements
  • Abstinence from alcohol
  • Eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet

Permanently giving up alcohol will prevent further losses in brain function and nerve damage. 

Addiction treatment, such as medically-supervised detox at an inpatient treatment center, might be necessary. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe.

It is important to take the proper steps to ensure one life-threatening condition is not swapped for another by quitting cold turkey.

If you have an alcohol use disorder and a mental health problem, it is essential to seek help for both conditions.

After detox and thiamine levels are regular, all that’s left to do is eat a nutritious and balanced diet. This ensures the effects of wet brain are controlled as much as possible. 

Depending on the severity and stage of the condition, this could lead to a full recovery.

However, it might only stop the syndrome from progressing even further. Full recovery from the condition is rare.

Either way, it will be an improvement over the devastating effects caused by untreated Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Although, there are different types of alcoholics, alcoholic personalities, and tolerances. The health effects are the same, especially long-term.

Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, WKS symptoms will not get worse over time if you undergo treatment early on.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

There are many treatment options available for alcohol use disorder (AUD) and addiction, including:

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Inpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment takes place at a licensed residential treatment center.

These programs provide 24/7 comprehensive, structured care. You'll live in safe, substance-free housing and have access to professional medical monitoring. 

The first step of an inpatient program is detoxification. Then behavioral therapy and other services are introduced. These programs typically last 30, 60, or 90 days, sometimes longer.

Most programs help set up your aftercare once you complete the inpatient portion of your treatment.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) provide similar services to inpatient programs.

Services include medical care, behavioral therapy, and support groups, along with other customized therapies. 

However, in a PHP program, you return home to sleep. Some services provide food and transportation, but services vary by program.

PHPs accept new patients as well as people who have completed an inpatient program and require additional intensive treatment.

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Outpatient Programs

Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient treatment or partial hospitalization programs.

These programs organize your treatment session based on your schedule. The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment.

They are best for people who have a high motivation to recover and cannot leave their responsibilities at home, work, or school. Outpatient programs are often part of aftercare programs once you complete an inpatient or PHP program.

It is important for people undergoing treatment to have a stable and supportive home environment. If family members/roommates drink or use drugs in the home environment, it will be extremely difficult for the person to maintain abstinence when they return home after treatment. It is extremely difficult to undergo successful outpatient therapy if you are living in a home environment with ready access to drugs and alcohol.

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Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Sometimes medications may be used in alcohol addiction treatment.

Some medicines can help reduce the negative side effects of detoxification and withdrawal.

Others can help you reduce cravings and normalize body functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone are the most common medications used to treat AUD. 

When combined with other evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery.

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Self-Management And Recovery Training (SMART) are open to anyone with a substance use disorder.

They are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober.  Support groups can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.

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Updated on April 18, 2022
6 sources cited
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Alcohol and Public Health: Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI). Average for United States 2006–2010 Alcohol-Attributable Deaths Due to Excessive Alcohol Use."
  2. World Health Organization (WHO). "Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health." p. XIV. 2014 ed.
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). "National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Table 2.1B—Tobacco Product and Alcohol Use in Lifetime, Past Year, and Past Month among Persons Aged 12 or Older."
  4. Sacks, J.J.; Gonzales, K.R.; Bouchery, E.E.; et al. "National and state costs of excessive alcohol consumption." American Journal of Preventive Medicine 49:e73–e79, 2015. PMID: 26477807.
  5. Michael D. Kopelman, Allan D. Thomson, Irene Guerrini, E. Jane Marshall. "The Korsakoff Syndrome: Clinical Aspects, Psychology and Treatment." Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 44, Issue 2, March-April 2009, Pages 148–154. Arts, Nicolaas Jm et al. “Korsakoff's syndrome: a critical review.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment vol. 13 2875-2890. 27 Nov. 2017, doi:10.2147/NDT.S130078.
  6. Martin, P.R., et al. "The role of thiamine deficiency in alcoholic brain disease. Alcohol Research and Health." 2003.

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