Understanding the Risks of Wet Brain and the Need for Treatment

There are many well-known side effects of excessive alcohol consumption, ranging from short-term or temporary effects to serious, long-term health consequences. In most cases, the public is well aware of these risks. But with wet brain and its severe risks, there is less information out there.

Even if you do not personally know someone struggling with alcohol addiction, you are likely already familiar with how it can severely impact your health.

Liver problems, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, higher stroke risk, lower immunity — the list of complications goes on. But while these health consequences are already widely known, there are still some that are less known despite their life-threatening nature.

One of these is wet brain syndrome. Keep reading to learn more about wet brain syndrome and how to prevent its occurrence with treatment from Pathfinders Recovery Centers!

What Is Wet Brain?

Wet Brain

Wet brain is a serious brain disorder that can potentially cause permanent brain damage. It is more commonly referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. The name comes from the two conditions that make up the two stages of wet brain: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome.

Wet brain is a condition similar to dementia but is far less common. The condition is generally associated with alcohol use disorder or chronic alcohol addiction, often leading to brain damage in several areas of the brain. However, people who suffer from eating disorders, food malabsorption, or have undergone obesity or bariatric surgery may also develop wet brain.

What Causes Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by thiamine deficiency or a severe lack of vitamin B1. Thiamine is one of the essential vitamins your body needs to break down sugars and carbohydrates into energy.

Additionally, it also helps with relaying nerve signals and muscle contraction. This is one of the reasons why early symptoms of wet brain include leg tremors and poor muscle coordination.

How Is Alcohol Addiction Connected to Wet Brain?

Alcohol addiction is one of the most common causes of thiamine or vitamin B1 deficiency.

Today, thiamine deficiency rarely occurs, as most foods we eat are either enriched or fortified with essential vitamins. However, alcohol abuse can severely affect how the body processes and absorbs vitamins.

Too much alcohol affects how your body processes not only thiamine but other vitamins as well, such as vitamins A, B12, and folacin. Excessive alcohol consumption, especially over a long period, ends up irritating the gastrointestinal system.

Alcohol Addiction Connected to Wet Brain

This can cause the digestive tract, particularly the stomach lining, to become inflamed. As a response, the stomach releases more acids, which interferes with its ability to absorb thiamine and other necessary vitamins and nutrients.

This is the primary reason why individuals struggling with alcohol abuse suffer from low vitamin B1 levels and end up developing wet brain. Low thiamine levels are also linked with other alcohol-related brain problems, including alcoholic dementia.

Identifying the Signs of Wet Brain

Two of the most common indicators of wet brain are chronic alcohol use and malnutrition or malnourishment. Individuals who are poorly nourished or have nutritional deficiencies are more likely to already be suffering from vitamin B1 deficiency.

Some signs can be difficult to attribute to wet brain as they may appear to simply be due to alcohol intoxication. If you suspect that one of your loved ones may have developed or is developing wet brain, be on the lookout for the following as well:

  • Inattentiveness
  • Indifference
  • Agitation
  • Lethargy
  • Drowsiness

Wet brain has two sets of symptoms — one for each of the two stages that make up the degenerative brain disorder. The symptoms for the first stage, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, are:

  • General mental confusion
  • Loss of mental activity
  • Leg tremors
  • Ataxia or lack of muscle coordination
  • Vision problems, including eyelid drooping, abnormal eye movements, and double vision
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Hypothermia
  • Low blood pressure

Once the condition progresses to the second stage, Korsakoff’s syndrome, there is a higher chance of the person sustaining permanent brain damage. The symptoms of this stage are similar to Wernicke’s symptoms but with the addition of the following:

  • Hallucinations
  • Disorientation
  • Memory loss or amnesia
  • Inability to form new memories
  • Making up exaggerated stories or confabulation

Diagnosing Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Diagnosing Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Several tests may help you and your loved one determine whether you have wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It is recommended to get the following examined:

  • Abnormal eye movement
  • Walking or gait coordination
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Reflexes or muscle response
  • Heart rate or pulse
  • Blood pressure
  • Complete blood work
  • Complete physical exam for signs of malnutrition

Since wet brain is common among those who are malnourished, it is also a good idea to get tested for the following:

  • Thiamine or vitamin B1 levels
  • Serum albumin, which helps give you a better insight into your general nutrition
  • Transketolase activity, which is noticeably reduced in people suffering from low vitamin B1 levels

Patients may also be referred to a neurologist or neuropsychologist to check on their memory. These doctors will also be able to better identify other cognitive issues.

Risk Factors for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

The biggest risk factor for developing wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction. Anyone with a history of chronic alcohol use risks getting wet brain the longer their drinking problem continues.

If you or someone you love averages drinking 35 alcoholic beverages each week, or at least 28 alcoholic drinks for women, for the past five to ten years, then they might already be exhibiting some early signs of wet brain.

Other risk factors may include:

  • Lack of balanced diet or poor nutrition
  • Bariatric or weight loss surgery
  • Low immune system
  • Long-term dialysis

What are the Stages of Wet Brain Disorder?

Wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome has two distinct stages based on the two neurological disorders that make up the condition. The two stages are divided on the severity of the disease progression.

Wet Brain Disorder

However, both are caused by the lack of enough thiamine or vitamin B1.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is the first stage of wet brain syndrome. It is also known as the acute or less serious stage. If diagnosed early, there is still a possibility of reversing most of the effects of the disorder with the help of alcohol abuse rehab and thiamine treatments.

The condition has several signs and symptoms, however, two of the more common and highly visible are oculomotor disturbances — periodic involuntary eye movements — and poor overall movement coordination. In the case of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, patients typically show signs of nystagmus or abnormal eye movements due to poor eye muscle control. Meanwhile, poor overall movement coordination generally manifests in gait problems and leg tremors.

Although the condition is deemed “acute,” it is largely only in comparison to the more severe second stage. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is still very much a medical emergency. The disease can leave parts of the brain damaged, particularly the thalamus and hypothalamus, which are in charge of sensory control and overall body homeostasis.

If left untreated, it can result in a coma or death. 20% of Wernicke’s encephalopathy cases lead to death. Even if the condition does not become fatal, it can still result in Korsakoff syndrome.

Korsakoff Syndrome

Around 85% of individuals who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy and fail to get treatment will develop Korsakoff syndrome. Moreover, in 25% of such cases, the individual with wet brain may require long-term care or institutionalization due to severe mental conditions.

Korsakoff’s syndrome is the chronic stage of wet brain disorder. It is also known as Korsakoff’s psychosis or amnesic syndrome, as one of its most common and long-lasting effects is related to memory loss and other memory issues. This stage of the disease primarily affects nerve cells and other supporting cells in your brain and spinal cord. As such, some symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome can become permanent health problems.

Two of the disorder’s common resulting conditions are retrograde amnesia or issues with retrieving old memories and anterograde amnesia or problems with acquiring new information and forming new memories.

Is Wet Brain Reversible?

As a whole, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome has the potential to be reversible. It all depends on when the disorder is diagnosed, what stage it is in, and the treatment the patient receives.

However, there is no way to fully reverse some of the effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome — especially once it reaches the second, more severe stage of the condition.

If the disorder was diagnosed while still in the acute stage or Wernicke’s encephalopathy, then timely thiamine and vitamin treatments may reverse some of the health effects. Even if some of the conditions cannot be fully reversed, they can be alleviated to significantly lower their impact on your daily life.

Are there Treatments for Wet Brain Syndrome?

Treatments for Wet Brain Syndrome

Wet brain treatment primarily focuses on limiting the effects of the disorder and slowing down its progression. In some cases, individuals diagnosed with wet brain may be required to check in at a hospital or care facility to help them manage their symptoms. Such care is necessary if the disease has progressed to the point of comatose or extreme lethargy.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

One of the most important things to do to ensure proper and successful treatment is to address the person’s alcohol abuse. Enrolling in either an inpatient or outpatient alcohol rehabilitation program is critical. Stopping excessive alcohol intake is key to preventing worse nerve or brain damage.

Thiamine Replacement

If you or a family member is still in the acute stage of the disease or Wernicke’s encephalopathy, then you will need to undergo immediate thiamine replacement. This is usually done intravenously. It will help manage symptoms such as confusion, delirium, ophthalmoplegia or weak eye muscles, and ataxia.

Moreover, a thiamine treatment can help slow down the progression of the disease. It may even help you avoid reaching the second, chronic stage of the condition. However, a thiamine replacement treatment course will not be able to help with amnesia, memory problems, and other symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome.

Seeking Help for Wet Brain and Chronic Alcohol Abuse

Help for Chronic Alcohol Abuse

Regardless of whether you or your loved one is already in the throes of alcohol addiction or just standing on the threshold, it is crucial to know the health dangers you may face in the future. Often, thinking about these risks is what can help you gain the clarity you need to seek immediate treatment.

Pathfinders Recovery Center offers compassionate and tailored addiction services in Arizona. We have more than 25 years of experience helping people struggling with addiction, health side effects, and co-occurring disorders.

Our facilities offer complete alcohol rehab and drug addiction rehab programs. If you or someone you love is showing signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, time is of the essence. Pathfinders Recovery Centers has all the tools you need to find stability and overcome your current condition.

Call us today for a confidential consultation and find your path to health with Pathfinders!

Wet Brain FAQs

What is wet brain?

Wet brain is a neurodegenerative brain disorder similar to dementia and is often seen in individuals who suffer from alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction.

What causes wet brain?

Wet brain is caused by thiamine deficiency or an extreme lack of vitamin B1. Many cases of wet brain are due to alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder.

What are the symptoms of wet brain?

The symptoms of wet brain are divided based on the stage of the disorder. Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, the first stage, include:

  • Confusion
  • Leg tremors
  • Ataxia or poor muscle coordination
  • Vision problems, including eyelid drooping and abnormal eye movements
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms

If the disease has already progressed to the second stage, Korsakoff’s syndrome, before being diagnosed, the symptoms that present would include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Memory loss or amnesia
  • Inability to form new memories
  • Disorientation
  • Exaggerated stories or confabulation

Can wet brain still be reversed?

Some symptoms of wet brain, such as memory problems, can be permanent. With proper and timely treatment, it is possible to slow down or stop the progression of this syndrome. However, it cannot be completely reversed in most cases.


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