People struggling with alcohol use disorder—and others concerned about the consequences of long-term alcohol abuse—may have come across the term Wet Brain Syndrome. However, many people are unsure of exactly what this condition entails. Wet Brain symptoms can include memory loss and brain damage.
Read on for a primer about why a person may develop Wet Brain, and how to prevent wet brain through addiction treatment.
What Is Wet Brain Syndrome?
Wet brain is merely a colloquial term; wet brain is known officially as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) within the medical community. This syndrome is two syndromes that are highly associated with one another. The first—Wernicke encephalopathy, or Wernicke syndrome—is an acute problem that comes on quickly with classic symptoms. Korsakoff syndrome is a persistent, long-term neurologic disorder that can result if Wernicke encephalopathy remains untreated.
A person can develop wet brain after heavy alcohol use. Some of the signs and symptoms of wet brain overlap with the signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication and alcohol withdrawal. Sometimes, a person who has dealt with a chronic alcohol addiction can struggle with a wet brain once they have become sober. As a result, their friends and family members may incorrectly assume that they have started drinking again.
What Is the Cause of Wet Brain Syndrome?
Wet brain is caused by a thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is a B-vitamin found in an abundance of foods in the United States, such as whole grains, bread, cereals, meat, and fish. As a vitamin, thiamine plays an important role in a person’s metabolism, cellular development, and growth. For most people, it is not difficult to get enough thiamine daily.
In severe alcohol use disorder, a person’s frequent alcohol use can affect how their body absorbs thiamine, and it can also reduce the thiamine stores in their liver. Also, people who are drinking heavily may reduce their daily intake of food dramatically instead of getting the majority of their daily calories through alcohol alone. With low thiamine levels, cells in crucial areas of the body—such as in the brain and nerves—can not function normally, which causes degeneration of the brain and many signs and symptoms.
There are other reasons why a person may develop a thiamine deficiency and subsequent Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, such as an eating disorder, absorption disorder, gastrointestinal surgery, or chemotherapy. However, alcohol use disorder is the most common culprit when it comes to low thiamine levels.
How Common Is Wet Brain?
Chronic alcoholism is a chronic disease, and during the progression of the disease, people are more likely to develop wet brain. Experts believe that this condition occurs in 1 to 2 percent of the general American population.
Who Is Most Likely to Develop Wet Brain?
Wet brain can happen to anyone who is drinking heavily enough to impact their thiamine levels. However, scientists believe that there may be a genetic component to the disease, with some people being more likely to develop wet brain than others. Males are more likely than females to develop wet brain. Other specific groups, such as psychiatric patients, undomiciled persons, and people living in isolation, are also more likely to develop the condition.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Wet Brain Syndrome can occur in two stages. During the immediate stage, Wernicke encephalopathy, the most common symptoms include:
- Abnormal eye movements such as double vision, eye twitching, or eye drooping
- Coma (if the thiamine deficiency is severe enough)
- Confusion and feeling disoriented
- Inattentiveness or indifference
- Problems with coordinating movements, such as a slow, unsteady walking pattern
- Severe tiredness
Wernicke encephalopathy typically develops over a few days or weeks. If Wernicke encephalopathy remains untreated, and it progresses to Korsakoff syndrome (which occurs 80 to 90 percent of the time), permanent brain damage can occur in the areas of the brain critical for memory—the thalamus and the hypothalamus.
People with Korsakoff syndrome, also known as Korsakoff psychosis, may experience the following symptoms:
- Confabulation (making up stories to fill memory gaps, which is often confused with lying)
- Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t seen by other people)
- Heart problems, such as fast heartbeat and low blood pressure
- Low body temperature
- Memory loss, especially when it comes to difficulties making new memories
- Random disappearance of long-term memories
- Weakness in the arms and legs that can cause walking difficulties
Even though they may have experienced profound changes in their physical and mental abilities, many people with wet brain are unaware of the changes and may not feel an illness. Moreover, they may carry on a normal social conversation, so their condition may not be immediately obvious to others.
How Does a Doctor Know if a Person Has IT?
Medical clinicians can only diagnose wet brain in a sober person. That is because the signs and symptoms of acute alcohol intoxication and withdrawal can overlap with the signs and symptoms of wet brain. Healthcare professionals may use tools such as a clinical interview, a physical exam (with specific attention to a person’s daily eating and drinking habits), blood tests, and imaging tests, such as CT scans or an MRI. It can be critical to use all of these tools in a detailed evaluation because signs and symptoms of wet brain can also get caused by other serious medical conditions such as brain tumors or brain bleeds.
Can Wet Brain Be Prevented?
Fortunately, for people with alcohol use disorder, wet brain is highly preventable. The first step to prevent wet brain is to address the underlying cause of the thiamine deficiency, which is heavy alcohol consumption. When a person stops drinking, their body can absorb and process thiamine more readily, delivering the essential vitamin to their body’s cells. They will also likely begin getting more of their daily calories from food instead of from nutrient-poor alcohol.
For many people, the concept of stopping their drinking is highly desirable, but the practical application remains difficult. Especially if a person has been drinking heavily for a long time, they are more susceptible to uncomfortable and difficult symptoms of alcohol withdrawal when they suddenly stop drinking. Alcohol withdrawal can also be a dangerous process, another mental and physical barrier when a person considers quitting. However, a structured detox program and rehabilitation facility can help people safely and comfortably detox from alcohol and then begin the journey toward recovery. Additionally, once a person has fully gone through the detoxification process, any potential underlying wet brain can be immediately addressed to avoid the possibility of long-term wet brain symptoms.
How Is It Treated?
To treat wet brain, medical clinicians treat the thiamine deficiency that causes the disorder. Thiamine vitamins can be given through an IV or an intramuscular injection. Thiamine therapy may need to be continued for several months, depending on how severe a person’s specific deficiency is and how the person’s condition is improving. Immediate treatment of Wernicke encephalopathy can help a person avoid having wet brain for the long term and prevent further memory loss.
If a person has stopped eating because of their alcohol use disorder, they may have other vitamin deficiencies that need to get treated also. Various medical specialists can help individuals correct other symptoms of wet brain, such as walking difficulties, mood problems, visual troubles, bowel issues, and heart problems.
What Is the Outlook for People With Wet Brain?
In many cases, if wet brain is detected in the early stages (Wernicke encephalopathy) and treated immediately, it can be reversed, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). If a person can stop drinking, often with the support of a structured rehab program, they can prevent further damage to their nerves and brain. If they continue to drink, however, the disease may progress to a long-term condition, and then wet brain may ultimately become life-threatening.
Locating Help for Wet Brain at an Alcohol Treatment Program
If a person has an alcohol use disorder, it is not inevitable that they will develop wet brain. If a person stops drinking by receiving treatment for alcoholism in a structured setting, they can prevent wet brain before it starts or even help resolve wet brain symptoms that have already taken effect
At The Haven New England, our medical providers have a wealth of experience in helping clients detox from alcohol and promptly address any signs or symptoms of wet brain. Within a fully integrated and medically supervised setting, people with alcohol use disorder can begin their journey toward lifelong sobriety.
To learn more, contact us today.