You’re probably familiar with some of the most common health problems caused by ongoing alcohol misuse. These include cirrhosis of the liver and certain forms of cancer. However, there are other, lesser-known conditions catalyzed by a lifetime of heavy drinking. Learn the symptoms, causes, and treatments of wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
First, it’s important to understand how medical professionals define alcohol use disorder. A person with this condition does not know when they should stop drinking. They also lack the ability to quit long-term, even if their alcohol use causes problems at work or at home.
Symptoms of alcoholism include:
- Drinking when it is inappropriate or dangerous
- Becoming unable to regulate the amount of alcohol consumed
- Stashing alcohol in various places (to be consumed in secret)
- Feeling irritable, nauseated, or shaky when unable to drink
- Developing a tolerance
An estimated 15 million American adults have an alcohol problem – that’s over 6% of the population. Each year, the World Health Organization estimates that 3.3 million global deaths occur as a result of alcohol use. A number of these individuals probably suffer from wet brain.
Wet brain is a shorthand for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Sometimes, it’s referred to as Korsakoff’s psychosis or alcohol-related dementia. It occurs when someone drinks for a long time and develops a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. As a result, various structures of the brain are damaged, including the hypothalamus and the thalamus. This means that individuals with this condition are at risk of memory problems and lifelong brain damage.
People with drinking problems experience wet brain because alcohol prevents the body from properly absorbing vitamin B1, also called thiamine. Thiamine is a coenzyme that is crucial to the function of the brain’s metabolism. Without it, the body’s levels of acetate, citrate, acetylcholine, and alpha-keto-glutarate are dramatically lowered. That causes metabolic imbalances, which catalyze neurological complications and cell death.
A vitamin B1 deficiency results in two concurrent pathologies that combine as one syndrome: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.
This degenerative brain disorder is characterized by low blood pressure, hypothermia, vision problems, and even going into a coma. The three hallmark symptoms to look out for include:
- Ophthalmoplegia – Paralysis of muscles around or within the eye,
- Ataxia – Losing control of one’s movements, resulting in a stagger or tremors, and
- Confusion – Delirium and disorientation.
If your loved one begins to complain about feeling mentally muddled, if you notice that they have developed tremors, or if they exhibit abnormal eye movements, they may have entered this first phase of wet brain syndrome. An estimated 90% of individuals with Wernicke encephalopathy will go on to develop Korsakoff syndrome.
The other half of wet brain is Korsakoff syndrome, which can be very upsetting for sufferers and their families. Its symptoms are:
- Memory problems – Memory loss and inability to remember new things,
- Hallucinations – Seeing and hearing things that are not there, and
- Changes in mental acuity – Inventing events when they cannot remember, becoming disoriented and confused, and exhibiting changes in personality.
Family members usually pick up on this stage of wet brain after years of seeing their loved one abuse alcohol. For example, a parent may become easily frustrated and difficult, while also making up stories or lying. However, the alcoholic may not even realize that they have these symptoms.
The psychotic aspect of this condition is called Korsakoff psychosis, which is a type of dementia characterized by amnesia, changed behavior, and hallucinations.
Treating Wet Brain
If caught early enough, it is possible to reverse the effects of wet brain. However, if left untreated, symptoms often persist to the point of disability. This is why doctors refer to Wernicke-Korsakoff as a “potentially reversible” condition. The two steps to recovering from this disorder are:
- Seeking appropriate medical care for thiamine supplementation (usually high doses provided intravenously), and
- Addressing the person’s underlying alcohol use disorder.
Abstaining from alcohol is a critical component of stopping the progression of wet brain. For those who have been drinking heavily enough to develop this condition, this is not something that should be attempted without support. Alcohol detox can be painful and potentially life-threatening. This is why it is recommended that people seek rehabilitation in a supervised setting.
Celebrate Hope provides a Biblically rooted, Christ-centered approach to healing. From our homey facility in Orange County, our staff provides a compassionate and restorative environment for those in need of treatment. We offer medical detox, residential and outpatient services, gender-specific programs, and long-term care. To learn more about Celebrate Hope, we invite you to contact our admissions team. They will be happy to answer any questions you may have about treatment for alcohol use disorder, wet brain, and more.