How is Alcohol Abuse Connected to Wet Brain? - Bluehills Recovery

A brain disorder that is related to an acute and chronic phase of a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, which is known as wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). It is seen in people with poor nutrition as well as those who have a history of long-term heavy drinking.

Symptoms can possibly be reversed if they are caught early. However, if they are left untreated, a wet brain could cause irreversible symptoms. These symptoms can be confusion, trouble with coordination of muscles and possible even hallucinations.

There are ways to help prevent a wet brain before it can develop and it can be treated proactively if a doctor is seen quickly after symptoms start to present themselves. Here at Blue Hills Recovery Center, our team can help with these treatments 

What Is a Wet Brain?

Wet brain is formally called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), and it is a severe life-threatening brain disorder. This brain disorder is made up of two conditions.

The first component of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a severe temporary condition that is characterized by loss of muscular coordination, confusion, and abnormal eye movements, along with vision changes. This is also called Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE).

The second component of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is Korsakoff’s psychosis, which is a chronic condition that can induce a significant impairment in memory and learning. It greatly interferes with a person’s ability to function normally. 

The name wet brain was called this because the condition mainly happened when someone was abusing alcohol for many years. 

Wernickle-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) began as a deficiency in thiamine which is associated with heavy alcohol use that was over an extended period of time, considered long-term. 

However, it can also be caused by malnutrition and other diseases. Up to 80% of people who suffer from severe alcohol use disorder (SUD) become thiamine deficient. A person must be sober when showing symptoms to be diagnosed with a wet brain. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) can sometimes be confused with symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and even other medical complications.

It is estimated that 1-2% of the general population will develop WKS, which is rather small. Although, those who chronically drink and are heavy long-term drinkers are at a higher risk with rates estimated around 12-14%.

How is Alcohol Abuse Connected to Wet Brain?

Vitamin B1, also known as Thiamine is an important and essential nutrient that is utilized throughout the entire body. It can only be obtained through diet. Its deficiency can cause damage to the nerves, heart and brain.

Alcohol abuse in the United States is the major leading cause of thiamine deficiency. Its deficiency is the consequence of the development of WKS.

Poor nutrition and malabsorption of thiamine are due to chronic alcohol abuse. People who tend to drink heavily do not eat a balanced diet and do not consume adequate levels of thiamine to meet their daily nutritional needs. It’s been shown in studies that people who drink chronically consume much lower thiamine levels overall.

In order for the body to properly absorb thiamine, it must go through the GI tract and then be transported to various body tissues.. In people who chronically abuse alcohol, the absorption is decreased. Alcohol usage can create inflammation in the intestines and the digestive tract, which can make it a whole lot more difficult for the body to absorb the thiamine. It can also make it more difficult for the body to effectively process and utilize the thiamine due to heavy drinking as well.

Thiamine builds enzymes that help play important roles in processing and converting sugar into energy. It also helps create chemical messengers in the brain and also genetic material in the cells.

What are the Symptoms of a Wet Brain?

The symptoms of intoxication and wet brain are similar. Though the symptoms of wet brain continue in the absence of drinking. Here are some more common symptoms of a wet brain.

  • Loss of muscular coordination
  • Behavioral changes
  • Vision changes (ex. double vision)
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Memory loss

There can be certain characteristics that may develop in a person with wet brain that family members may begin to notice, such as:

  • Frustration and irritability
  • Difficulty and resistance
  • Lies, or making up stories

Wet brain can also cause reduced consciousness, a coma or even death in certain circumstances.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

WKS consists of two parts. The first part is Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE), which is a short-term neurological disorder that is made up of three hallmark signs. Those three hallmark signs include apathy, mental confusion, loss of muscle coordination when walking or standing, eye movement dysfunction, along with visual disturbances. 

For people who suffer from WE, the nerves that control their eyes may become paralyzed. When this happens it can cause drooping eyelids, involuntary eye movements and trouble tracking objects correctly. These coordination issues could cause people to walk with a stagger and in certain extreme cases lose their entire ability to walk altogether. 

Even though there are three hallmark characteristics of WE, a person doesn’t have to display all three characteristics. It has been shown in studies that people who have WE were often undiagnosed because all three characteristics weren’t exhibited.

It is caused by a thiamine deficiency, and if caught early it can be reversible. Though treatment must be provided as quickly as possible to ensure better outcomes.

Korsakoff Psychosis

After someone develops WE from abusing alcohol, 80% to 90% end up developing Korsakoff’s psychosis. Korsakoff’s Psychosis is a form of neuropsychiatric dementia. It is a residual condition when WE weren’t able to be treated quickly and/or effectively it resulted in a range of more symptoms that can be even more difficult for a person’s ability to function.

Alcoholic dementia or Alcohol amnestic disorder is also what this condition is referred to as.

Korsakoff’s psychosis includes characteristics of hallucinations, amnesia, and changes in behavior. Retrograde amnesia, which are memory issues that involve difficulty in remembering past information. Also, anterograde amnesia, which is trouble forming new memories. This can all lead to confabulation which makes the formation of stories and events as gaps in one’s memory.

The memory issues that occur with this condition occur because it affects the area of the brain that controls the memory which is damaged due to the disease. People who suffer from this condition may not even realize they are having any symptoms. They may not even notice any behavioral changes such as irritability, apathy, or displaying less emotion than normal.

wet brain

Is Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome Reversible?

There are several factors that depend on the success as to how reversible the condition is. To begin the evaluation of the severity of the person’s symptoms, how early a person begins treatment, the type of treatment they receive, and how well they respond to treatment. All those factors have a significant impact on whether or not WKS can be reversed or even alleviated.

There are some people who are fortunate enough to make a full recovery, although it is rare. Thiamine therapy will show different levels of improvement in symptoms after about 5-12 days.

How is Wet Brain Treated?

Wet brain is treated through potent thiamine supplementation along with abstinence from alcohol. Being that WKS is created by thiamine deficiency, high doses of thiamine supplementation prove to be one of the most effective treatments.

Thiamine can be taken as an oral supplement, but it can also be taken as an intramuscular or intravenous injection. Other vitamins and supplements can also be added as well to help the body process thiamine and increase levels in the body overall.

Increased thiamine levels have been shown to decrease confusion, help increase coordination, and also improve eye function. It also has been shown to help improve memory problems in people who have WKS.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder and Alcohol Addiction

For those who have been diagnosed with WKS, it is important for them to avoid alcohol at all costs. In that case, it may require them to seek treatment for an alcohol use disorder. It would be beneficial in helping to slow down the progression of their condition and improve the chronic symptoms of WKS.

At Blue Hills Recovery, we have a substance abuse treatment and mental health service center located in Worcester, Maine. We offer many therapies and programs tailored to your specific needs to help you on your path to the most successful recovery. Contact us today and see how we can best serve you!