Alcohol abuse can have devastating effects on the mind and body. Left untreated, alcoholism can produce permanent and life-altering changes to the brain. One of the more serious long-term effects of heavy drinking is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, better known as “Wet Brain.”
What is Wet Brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome)?
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), commonly referred to as “wet brain,” is a serious brain disorder that develops as the result of a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency that is caused by chronic, heavy drinking.
Studies suggest that up to 80% of people with severe alcoholism become deficient in thiamine. However, individuals must be demonstrating symptoms of wet brain while sober in order to be diagnosed.
The syndrome is actually the result of two separate conditions:[1,2]
- Wernicke Encephalopathy – A life-threatening neurological condition caused by alcohol abuse, nutritional deficiencies, chronic vomiting or eating disorders, and other illnesses. Wernicke Encephalopathy is characterized by vision problems, low blood pressure, mental confusion, hypothermia, coma, and others.
- Korsakoff Syndrome – Kosakoff syndrome is a residual side effect of Wernicke Encephalopathy. Symptoms of this condition include memory loss, global amnesia, cognitive dysfunction, behavioral problems, hallucinations, and more.
Korsakoff syndrome is sometimes called Korsakoff’s psychosis because the significant impairment in memories and learning impedes a person’s ability to function normally.
Up to 12-14% of chronic, heavy drinkers develop wet brain or WKS. This is far higher than the general population, of which only 1-2% of people develop the condition.
What are the Symptoms of Wet Brain?
Symptoms of WKS begin as a result of internal bleeding in the brain. This can lead to the first phase of WKS (Wernicke Encephalopathy):
- Poor balance
- Slow reflexes
- Lack of concentration
- Increased heart rate
- Twitching of the eyes or abnormal eye movements
- Muscle atrophy
- Mental confusion
- Extreme fatigue
As the condition progresses, individuals move into the second phase of WKS (Korsakoff’s psychosis) which can be destructive, permanent, and deadly:
- Trouble learning new things
- Memory loss or amnesia
- Poor balance and coordination
- Easily frustrated or irritable
- Vision problems
- Creating new events or stories to fill gaps in memory (confabulation)
- Personality changes
Before phase two symptoms begin to develop, individuals who stop drinking and receive treatment may see their symptoms improve. However, those who have progressed into later stages are likely to have sustained permanent brain damage.
How Can an Alcohol Rehab Center Help With Wet Brain?
Not everyone who develops Wernicke Encephalopathy progresses into Korsakoff syndrome. Those who enter a comprehensive alcohol detox and treatment program may be able to catch their symptoms early enough to reverse some of the damage done and prevent the progression of the disease.
Making the decision to go to an alcohol rehab center can help improve and reverse symptoms of wet brain.
Medically Supervised Detox
The first step of alcohol rehab is detox. Detox helps flush alcohol from the system in a safe, supervised manner. This prepares the individual for treatment by helping them move past the painful, sometimes life-threatening, symptoms of withdrawal.
Abstinence from alcohol is one of the most important aspects of treating wet brain. However, many people who suffer from alcoholism continue drinking to avoid going into withdrawal, preventing themselves from achieving sobriety. Detox can help individuals get sober and begin the healing process by providing around-the-clock medical support.
Nutrition and Health Plans
Working with a personal nutritionist and following an individualized health plan can help people reverse WKS. Many addiction treatment centers in Massachusetts have licensed nutritionists on staff who work closely with patients to develop a nutrition plan that meets their needs.
Since Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency is the cause behind WKS, thiamine may be taken as an oral supplement or as an injection to provide the body with this essential nutrient and begin reducing the symptoms of wet brain. Increased thiamine levels can reduce confusion, improve coordination and eye function, and even reduce memory problems.
Evidence-Based Treatment for Long-Term Sobriety
Wet brain can continue progressing if individuals continue drinking or begin drinking again after a period of abstinence. As a result, it’s essential for patients to receive comprehensive, evidence-based treatments that support long-term sobriety.
Alcohol treatment programs may consist of:
- Group therapy
- Individual therapy
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
- Supplemental and complementary therapies
- Relapse prevention
- Aftercare planning
Staying sober is the key to healing from the early stages of WKS. In time, the brain will slowly begin to heal itself.
Can Drinkers Prevent Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?
The best way to prevent wet brain is to not drink or drink in moderation. However, this can be difficult to do for people who struggle with alcohol use disorder.
Someone who refuses to stop drinking may be able to reduce their chance of developing the condition by taking thiamine supplements and eating a healthy diet, but there is no way for an alcoholic to completely eliminate the risk.
Sadly, few people seek the treatment they need for alcoholism. WKS can also decrease one’s lifespan significantly. One consequence of this is that up to 75-80% of WKS diagnoses are missed.
Find Help for Alcoholism For Yourself or a Loved One
If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism, it’s important to know that effective treatment is available. Continuing to drink will only harm your well-being, damage your relationships, and complicate your life. But with professional treatment, you can recover.
Don’t wait any longer to get the life-changing help you deserve. Call now to speak with a trusted addiction specialist.