Wet Brain Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What Is Wet Brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome)?

“Wet brain,” which is technically referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a type of cognitive impairment, similar to dementia, that is sometimes caused by excessive alcohol consumption (alcohol addiction). 

Wet brain syndrome results as a combination of two closely related conditions occurring simultaneously, known individually as Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome. 

With Korsakoff’s syndrome, more severe cases progress into Korsakoff’s psychosis, which is more problematic than milder cases of wet brain. While wet brain is a commonly used term, the medical term “Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome” is used more widely today than it was in the past. 

alcohol

Alcohol Abuse & Wet Brain Syndrome

Wet brain syndrome arises from repeated and heavy drinking. Wet brain is a condition that presents itself only after long-term use and abuse of alcohol. However, alcoholism alone cannot account for the onset of wet brain, which is a complex condition brought about by a multitude of factors, much like alcoholism (alcohol use disorder). 

Wet brain is also described as “alcohol-related dementia.” The damage it causes to the brain affects learning and memory functions, which are often irreversible. 

Wet brain is sometimes difficult to diagnose, with symptoms that resemble alcohol withdrawal or intoxication. Those suffering from the condition often lack a support system to aid in identifying and formally diagnosing the condition.

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, as it cannot be produced like Vitamin D from the interaction between skin cells and sunlight. 

Every cell in the human body uses thiamine, which helps to process fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. It does this by breaking them down into glucose and, ultimately, energy in the brain, nerves, and heart. 

Drinking alcohol hinders the absorption of thiamine. It also diminishes thiamine reserves that are stored in the liver and interfere with the enzyme that activates its bioavailability. On top of this, many people suffering from alcoholism have poor diets, which further lowers thiamine levels in the body from a lack of general nutrition. 

side effects

Symptoms of Wet Brain

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

  • Appetite loss
  • Vomiting and persistent nausea
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Unexplained giddiness
  • Insomnia
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Confusion
  • A decrease in mental activity
  • Ataxia (decrease in muscle control)
  • Brain damage, such as cognitive impairment, forgetfulness, and memory loss
  • Confabulation (fake memories created to replace real, forgotten memories)

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

  • Changes in vision, such as double vision
  • Abnormal eye movements or drooping eyelids
  • Inability to develop new memories
  • Severe memory loss
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations

Complications of Wet Brain Syndrome

Untreated wet brain syndrome can lead to serious and increasingly harmful complications. The most severe of these complications is the progression into Korsakoff’s psychosis, where the brain is irreparably damaged and leads to increased memory problems. 

This often causes people to make up stories to fill in gaps, which sometimes are not even remembered by the person suffering from psychosis. 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.

treatment

Wet Brain Prognosis, Diagnosis & Treatment Options

The primary goal of diagnosing and treating wet brain syndrome is to lessen the symptoms and prevent the disorder from progressing into a worsened state. Wet brain needs to be treated as soon as possible.

Early-stage treatment can limit and even reverse the harmful effects that thiamine deficiency has on people suffering from the condition. There are three main methods for early-stage treatment, which should all be applied together:

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

Part of what makes treating wet brain a challenge is that abstinence from alcohol is extremely difficult. Becoming sober and permanently giving up alcohol will prevent further losses in brain function and nerve damage. 

Addiction treatment, such as an intervention or medically-supervised detox at an inpatient treatment center, might be necessary to accomplish this. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe. And in some cases, deadly. It is important to take the proper steps to ensure one life-threatening condition is not swapped for another by quitting cold-turkey.

Once a proper detox is in place, and thiamine levels are elevated from Vitamin B1 shots, all that’s left to do is eat a nutritious and balanced diet. This ensures the effects of wet brain are mitigated to the extent that it is 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. Either way, it will be an improvement over the devastating effects caused by untreated Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

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

Resources

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. Available at: https://nccd.cdc.gov/DPH_ARDI/Default/Report.aspx?T=AAM&P=f6d7eda7-036e-4553-9968-9b17ffad620e&R=d7a9b303-48e9-4440-bf47-070a4827e1fd&M=8E1C5233-5640-4EE8-9247-1ECA7DA325B9&F=&D=

World Health Organization (WHO). Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health. p. XIV. 2014 ed. Available at: http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/msb_gsr_2014_1.pdf?ua=1

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 2018 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, by Age Group: Percentages, 2017 and 2018. Available at: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHDetailedTabs2018R2/NSDUHDetTabsSect2pe2018.htm#tab2-1b.

Sacks, J.J.; Gonzales, K.R.; Bouchery, E.E.; et al. 2010 national and state costs of excessive alcohol consumption. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 49(5):e73–e79, 2015. PMID: 26477807

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Updated on: October 9, 2020
Author
Jordan Flagel
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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