Alcohol abuse is extremely harmful to the mind and body, resulting in a range of long-term health issues. One such medical condition is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), often referred to as “wet brain.” WKS is a potentially fatal brain disorder that results from thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, which is commonly linked to poor nutrition and heavy, long-term drinking.

WKS is not as common as other long-term effects of alcohol abuse, but it is devastating to those who experience it. Without early diagnosis, prompt treatment, and alcohol cessation, wet brain can lead to irreversible brain damage and early death.

What is Wet Brain?

Wet brain is another name for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome or WKS, a combination of two conditions called Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome (also known as Korsakoff’s psychosis). Both conditions result from a deficiency of thiamine, or vitamin B1.

Many things can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, but the nickname “wet brain” refers specifically to cases caused by alcohol abuse. Studies have found that up to 80% of people with alcohol use disorder are thiamine deficient. People with alcohol use disorder often have a poor diet, and the amount of alcohol they consume prevents them from absorbing and using vitamins and minerals correctly.

While WKS is rare, with only 1-2% of the general population developing it, people who abuse alcohol heavily for a prolonged period of time are at an increased risk. An estimated 12-14% of long-term heavy drinkers develop wet brain syndrome. Most people who suffer from the syndrome require extensive and long-term treatment.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Wet Brain?

Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome is a progressive condition that is a combination of two conditions, so the symptoms can vary based on what stage of the syndrome a person is in.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy (WE)

Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE) causes vision problems such as rapid back-and-forth eye movements and double vision, and poor muscle coordination. In true cases of wet brain syndrome, it may also share symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, further necessitating the need for residential alcohol detox treatment.

Signs of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are:

  • Mental confusion
  • Apathy
  • Loss of muscle coordination while walking or standing
  • Eye movement dysfunction
  • Vision disturbances
  • Involuntary eye movements
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Difficulty tracking objects properly with the eyes
  • Walking with a stagger

About 80-90% of alcoholics who develop WE go on to develop Korsakoff’s syndrome, as well.

Korsakoff’s Psychosis

Left untreated, the residual effects of WE can result in Korsakoff’s syndrome. Korsakoff’s syndrome is a memory disorder that causes hallucinations, inability to form new memories and severe memory loss. Alcoholics who progress to this stage are often said to have alcohol-related dementia or “alcoholic dementia.”

Symptoms of Kosakoff’s psychosis are:

  • Amnesia
  • Changes in behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Difficulty remembering past information
  • Difficulty forming new memories
  • Confabulation–making up stories to fill the gaps in memory
  • Apathy
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Anger
  • Personality changes
  • Displaying fewer emotions than usual

Is Wet Brain Reversible?

Whether or not wet brain can be reversed depends on how far the condition has progressed. In the early stages, wet brain causes inflammation in the brain, but if thiamine is given before the inflammation causes damage, the condition can be quickly reversed. However, individuals must stop drinking, as well. Continuing to drink alcohol will cause the disease to progress.

As the syndrome progresses, inflammation in the brain leads to permanent damage. Even with treatment and abstinence, this damage cannot be reversed.

Unfortunately, diagnosing WKS in people struggling with alcoholism can be challenging because many symptoms of the condition can be confused with or masked by symptoms of withdrawal withdrawal. As a result, diagnosis is usually made after detox, clinical evaluation, and an MRI.

How Long Do People Live With Alcoholic Dementia?

Sadly, alcohol-related dementia has poor survival rates. Epidemiological studies have shown that five-year survival rates were 63.4% for women and 53.4% for men. The 10-year survival rates were found to be only 38.3% for women and 29.5% for men.

How is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Treated?

The standard treatment for WKS is with thiamine supplementation. If WKS is caused by alcohol, it is also important that individuals stop drinking.

High doses of thiamine have been shown to greatly improve and even reverse the effects of the condition when it is administered in the early stages. It can help reduce memory issues and confusion while promoting better coordination and eye function.

Thiamine supplements may be given orally or as an injection. Additional vitamins, if needed, can also be given with thiamine to improve absorption and overall wellness.

When an alcohol use disorder is also present, it is vital that the person seeks detox and treatment for the condition, as well.

Alcohol Abuse Treatment

The best way to prevent wet brain and permanent brain damage is to seek professional alcohol abuse treatment. Whether you’re early on in your alcoholism or you’ve been drinking for decades, giving up alcohol allows your mind and body to begin the healing process. You can reduce your risk of numerous health conditions, including WKS, by quitting drinking.

At First Step Behavioral Health, our alcohol rehab program begins with medical detox where clients can detox safely and comfortably. Supervised by medical professionals, medical detox can prevent common challenges associated with alcohol withdrawal, including tremors, seizures, and more. It also gives the clinical team an opportunity to observe, assess, and diagnose any potential health conditions that require treatment.

After detoxing, clients fully immerse themselves in group and individual therapy sessions at our residential treatment program. With separation from triggers and alcohol itself, individuals can focus solely on their recovery. To learn more about our alcohol addiction treatment programs or to get started with a confidential, risk-free assessment, please contact us today.

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