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Updated on July 21, 2023
6 min read

What You Need to Know About Wet Brain Syndrome

What Is Wet Brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome)?

“Wet brain,” technically known as Wernicke-Korsakoff (WK) syndrome, is a neurological disorder. It’s caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency.

Thiamine deficiency is a long-term side effect of poor nutrition and long-term alcohol use disorder. Once diagnosed, immediate medical treatment is necessary to avoid irreversible and potentially fatal neurological symptoms.


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Stages of Wet Brain 

Wet brain syndrome includes two distinct stages. These are Wernicke's encephalopathy (acute phase) and Korsakoff’s syndrome (chronic phase). If caught in the acute phase, the worst symptoms of wet brain can be avoided.

Wernicke's Encephalopathy

Wernicke's encephalopathy is the acute phase of wet brain syndrome. It’s characterized by confusion, ataxia, and eye movement disturbances.

If thiamine replacement therapy is promptly initiated during this stage, it can reverse or improve neurological symptoms and prevent the progression to the chronic phase.

Korsakoff’s Syndrome

Korsakoff’s syndrome is the chronic phase of wet brain. It may develop if Wernicke's encephalopathy is untreated or not adequately treated.

It’s characterized by severe memory loss, amnesia, and cognitive deficits. Once Korsakoff's syndrome sets in, the neurological damage is often permanent, making early intervention during the acute phase crucial for better outcomes. 

Symptoms of Wet Brain

Symptoms of wet brain vary depending on how the brain is affected and how early treatment incites.

For Wernicke's encephalopathy, symptoms include:

  • Appetite loss
  • Vomiting and persistent nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Unexplained giddiness
  • Insomnia
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Confusion
  • A decrease in mental activity
  • Ataxia
  • Brain damage, such as cognitive impairment, forgetfulness, and memory loss

In more severe cases, or when a person reaches Korsakoff’s psychosis, 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

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What Causes Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain occurs because of thiamine deficiency, often due to poor nutrition and excessive alcohol consumption. Unlike vitamin D, vitamin B1 cannot be produced by the body and must be ingested.

Common food sources for vitamin B1 include:

  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Organ meats
  • Pork
  • Fish

Thiamine, or Vitamin B1, is essential for a healthy brain and dendrite function. Dendrites are the parts of your neurons that send and receive information. Without thiamine, dendrites cannot properly function, and brain function declines.

Other functions of thiamine include:

  • Helping the body use carbohydrates as energy
  • Enabling the flow of electrolytes to and from muscle and nerve cells
  • Reducing diabetic complications and heart issues
  • Preventing or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease

Excessive alcohol consumption hinders thiamine absorption, affecting all organ systems, including the liver, heart, brain, and kidneys. Many people suffering from alcohol addiction have poor diets, further diminishing the body’s thiamine levels.


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Alcohol Abuse & Wet Brain 

Roughly 80% of people suffering from alcohol use disorder also suffer from thiamine deficiency. Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to poor nutrition and malabsorption, meaning your body lacks the proper nutrition to be healthy.

In the early stages, such as in Wernicke's encephalopathy, the damage is often reversible. Treatment involves replenishing thiamine levels and providing proper nutrition and hydration.

It is essential to start thiamine replacement before beginning nutritional replenishment. Doctors might also recommend drug therapy. Halting the use of alcohol may prevent further nerve and brain damage. 

How is Wet Brain Diagnosed?

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

Physicians diagnose wet brain through a detailed clinical examination. This examination includes:

  • Imaging scans (MRI/CT)
  • Detailed lab work
  • A thorough review of a person’s health record

The examination covers the following:

  • A complete medical history and examination of the person’s daily drinking habits and nutritionary history. Doctors will check for signs of malnutrition. 
  • Lab work to assess blood count, liver function, electrolytes, and thiamine function
  • An MRI or CT scan to show enlarged ventricles and diencephalic lesions, shrunken mammillary bodies, and neurological irregularities

Treatment Pathways

Many symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are reversible if caught in their acute phase and diagnosed early. Treatment at this stage includes: 

  • Thiamine replacement therapy (administered intravenously)
  • Consistent hydration and good nutrition
  • Abstention from alcohol

If caught in the chronic stage, recovery is not guaranteed. People in the later stages of wet brain are likely to have lasting neurological and physiological effects.

If left untreated, outcomes can be grave:

  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy causes death in up to 20 percent of patients
  • In 85 percent of cases, the disorder progresses to Korsakoff syndrome
  • If alcohol abuse and poor nutrition continue, symptoms will worsen7


When untreated, Wernicke-Korsakoff (WK) syndrome can lead to serious complications that worsen over time. 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 behavioral changes. In very severe cases, the disease leads to a loss of brain function, resulting 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. Outcomes depend on the following:

  • The severity of the case
  • How early treatment starts
  • The type of treatment your medical professional uses

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 is to prevent permanent brain damage. A doctor should diagnose wet brain and begin treatment immediately. 

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

Overcoming Alcohol Addiction

Overcoming alcohol use disorder is the only way to mitigate the devastating effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Although there are different types of alcoholics, alcoholic personalities, and tolerances, the health effects are the same, especially long-term. Permanently giving up alcohol will prevent further losses in brain function and nerve damage. 

Depending on the severity of one’s alcohol use disorder, addiction treatment, like medically-supervised detoxification, might be necessary. Suddenly stopping or drastically reducing alcohol intake can lead to severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. If you have an alcohol use disorder and a mental health problem, seeking help for both conditions is essential. 

After detox and thiamine levels are regular, eating a nutritious and balanced diet could ensure complete control of the effects of wet brain. Depending on the severity and stage of the condition, these changes could lead to a full recovery.

Updated on July 21, 2023
8 sources cited
Updated on July 21, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. "Alcohol and Public Health: Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI). Average for United States 2006–2010 Alcohol-Attributable Deaths Due to Excessive Alcohol Use." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  2. "Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health." World Health Organization (WHO), 2014.
  3. "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." Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 
  4. Sacks et al. "National and state costs of excessive alcohol consumption." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2015.
  5. Kopelman et al. "The Korsakoff Syndrome: Clinical Aspects, Psychology and Treatment." Alcohol and Alcoholism, 2009.
  6. Arts et al. “Korsakoff's syndrome: a critical review.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 2017.
  7. Martin et al. "The role of thiamine deficiency in alcoholic brain disease. Alcohol Research and Health." National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2003.
  8. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome - symptoms, causes, treatment: Nord.” National Organization for Rare Disorders, 2023.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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