Wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a type of brain damage that is caused by alcohol abuse and addiction. Excessive alcohol abuse, even among functional alcoholics, leads to thiamine deficiency, which damages the brain. Over time, this leads to the development of wet brain syndrome symptoms.
Brain Damage from Heavy Alcohol Abuse: An In-Depth Look at Wet Brain
Although wet brain is not only linked to alcohol abuse, 90% of wet brain cases are caused by alcohol use. Those who have abused alcohol for a longer period of time are more likely to struggle with this disease. In fact, those who start to exhibit alcoholism symptoms are much more likely to develop wet brain.
The wet brain disease affects approximately 1 to 2% of Americans. The disease is more prevalent in males than in females, and is most likely to affect Americans between the ages of 30 and 70. Some studies have shown that the disease is more likely to affect certain ethnicities.
Overall, this disease needs to be taken seriously. If it is left untreated, it can cause a significant amount of damage within the affected individual. Alcoholics, in particular, should familiarize themselves with this disease. They need to watch out for the symptoms, and seek help if they suspect that they may be developing the early stages of the disease.
Causes of Wet Brain
The body needs thiamine to function. Thiamine is one of the 8 essential vitamins of the body. It handles cellular production of energy, and enhances neuronal activities. It’s also responsible for managing and regulating many other critical bodily functions. It’s one of the most important vitamins to have in the body.
Although thiamine is vital to the body, the body does not make it naturally. Therefore, it must be ingested through various sources, like through meat, whole grain cereals and nuts. This is why it’s important to have a balanced diet. In general, the human body needs about 0.33 mg of thiamine for every 1,000 calories it needs to consume.
When there’s a deficiency of thiamine in the body, certain enzymes are produced. These enzymes trigger certain metabolic events and sequences that can lead to neuronal death. Unfortunately, the neuronal death happens in the brain. This causes the formation of lesions, and the brain will basically become damaged to the point where it bleeds. The damage can be rather severe, and some damages may be permanent.
Permanent damages lead to the development of wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This disease most often affects individuals who are struggling with an alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, this means that many Americans are susceptible to wet brain. In 2015 alone, 15.1 million adults struggled with an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Wet Brain Symptoms
The Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome symptoms can be separated into two parts. It consists of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Both parts of the wet brains syndrome come with a distinct set of symptoms. Some of these symptoms, however, overlap with alcoholism symptoms.
In most cases, Wernicke’s encephalopathy symptoms will kick in first. If the affected individual fails to seek treatment at this point, the condition worsens. This might lead to the development of Korsakoff’s psychosis. It’s possible for patients with wet brain to develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy and not Korsakoff’s psychosis. When both symptoms are present, the symptoms are similar to dementia.
As mentioned above, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome symptoms manifest in two distinct parts. The first part consists of Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE). It’s often underdiagnosed, even among chronic alcoholics. This is because the wet brain symptoms of this part of the condition may not necessarily be obvious.
Doctors use MRIs to detect this part of the condition. WE is an acute neurologic disorder. It’s caused by a thiamine, or vitamin B1, deficiency. The brain actually physically changes and sustains damages due to nutritional deficiencies.
Many researchers, doctors and studies will use MRIs to diagnose this condition among patients. In particular, the healthcare providers will look for lesions in the brain. Specific regions and areas are more likely to sustain damages than other parts.
MRI images of patients struggling with wet brain can be quite telling. In MRIs of patients with WE, symmetric lesions were present in:
- The dorsal medulla of 8% of patients
- The mamillary bodies of 58% of patients
- The medial thalami and the periventricular region of the third ventricle of 85% of patients
- The periaqueductal area of 65% of patients
- The tectal plate of 38% of patients
The lesions usually show that there’s bleeding in the brain. The prognosis of this part of the disease will depend on when thiamine supplementation is prescribed to patients. Those who receive thiamine supplements early on are more likely to recover. With that said, they may still sustain some minor permanent damages to the brain.
Wernicke’s Encephalopathy Syndrome symptoms
The bleeding in the brain will result in the emergence of a vast array of symptoms. The intensity of the symptoms will vary from patient to patient. Depending on where the bleeding occurs in the brain, different wet brain symptoms will also emerge. Some common symptoms of WE syndrome include:
- Abnormal or involuntary eye movements
- Confusion and/or mental impairment
- Diminished reflexes
- Loss of balance, coordination and motor function
- Lowered body temperature
- Muscle atrophy and weakness
- Rapid heart rate
In general, the three main symptoms to be on the lookout for include abnormal eye movements, a staggering gait and confusion. All three symptoms are present in about 10% of patients who have WE syndrome. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, WE can be difficult to diagnose. It may remain undetected in many patients.
The second part of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is Korsakoff’s psychosis. This part of the condition only develops if the first part is never treated. Unfortunately, about 80% to 90% of alcoholics will end up developing Korsakoff’s psychosis. This part of the disease is not only long lasting, but also debilitating. By this point, patients have sustained a significant amount of brain damage.
Unfortunately, while doctors can still treat this disease, patients will never fully recover. The damage is simply too severe. If it is not treated or managed, this part of the condition could even become life threatening.
Korsakoff’s Psychosis Symptoms
The wet brain symptoms for this part of the condition are hard to ignore or to gloss over. By this point in time, the brain has sustained a significant amount of damage. The cerebellar degeneration is easy to detect on MRIs. The symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis are quite obvious and include:
- Becoming frustrated or irritated quickly
- Confabulation, which involves inventing events to fill in memory gaps
- Confusion and disorientation
- Difficulties learning
- Loss of balance, coordination or motor function
- Memory loss and/or impairment
- Mood swings and personality changes
- Vision problems
Essentially, this part of the condition is characterized by persistent memory problems and learning difficulties. By the time that patients have developed Korsakoff’s psychosis, they are often forgetful. They may also become frustrated easily. They’ll also experience difficulties with recalling old information and learning new things. They experience both retrograde and anterograde amnesia.
For example, a patient with Korsakoff’s psychosis may be able to discuss a childhood memory in detail. However, within an hour, they may completely forget having that conversation at all.
Treatment for Wet Brain
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a serious disease. Treatment for wet brain should start immediately. Our medical staff will assess your situation to determine the dose and type of medications to prescribe.
One medication that will always be prescribed for wet brain treatment is thiamine, or vitamin B1, supplements. This medication can be prescribed through oral means or can be injected intravenously or intramuscularly into the body. Most patients receive thiamine supplements two to three times a day. The wet brain treatment continues until clinical improvements cease.
The thiamine supplements can improve certain symptoms, like delirium and confusion. However, it will not improve symptoms related to memory loss or cognitive impairment.
Before the thiamine supplements are given, most doctors will check the thiamine levels in the blood of each patient. The blood work should also look at the concentration of other vitamins and minerals.
Depending on the results from the blood work, the doctors may also prescribe other supplements like:
- Ascorbic acid
- Folic acid
Taurine is most likely to be given to patients who also struggle with cardiocirculatory impairment. Depending on the amount of brain damage sustained, some doctors may also prescribe anti-inflammatories. The anti-inflammatories will help with the swelling.
At times, doctors may prescribe glucose to hypoglycaemic alcoholics. In this situation, thiamine must also be given concurrently. This is because glucose will quickly eat up the body’s remaining thiamine reserves. This will only worsen wet brain symptoms, especially if additional thiamine is not given. To counter this, a higher dose of thiamine supplement is given to patients.
Wet Brain Prognosis
Depending on when the disease was treated, the prognosis differs. In general, if doctors catch the disease early and are able to treat it, the prognosis is quite good. Thiamine supplements will improve most symptoms other than memory loss and cognitive impairment. The mortality rate for Wernicke’s encephalopathy is only at about 10% to 20%. Mortality only happens when the disease has progressed to its severe stages.
The prognosis for those who have developed Korsakoff’s psychosis is not good. This is because the brain has already sustained a significant amount of damage. Without treatment, the disease will only get worse. It can easily lead to coma or death.
Since early detection and treatment can help with many aspects of the disease, many doctors urge alcoholics to seek treatment immediately. At the very least, alcoholics should get their thiamine levels checked.
Brain Recovery from Alcohol Timeline
The million-dollar question for many alcoholics is whether brain recovery is possible. While some damages are too serious and severe, others are treatable with abstinence.
After two weeks of abstinence, the recovery for wet brain will begin. The patient’s brain will start to regain volume. Those in recovery will start to see notable improvements in their motor function and skills. Others may even start to see an improvement in cognitive function.
After a month, the brain will start to rewire itself. It will start to rebuild new habits. This makes it easier to abstain from alcohol. Those in alcohol rehab will start to have a much easier time adapting to new changes. Patients who pair rehab treatment with counseling and therapy will see more notable improvements.
After a year, areas of the brain responsible for decision-making and problem solving will also start to recover. This is great for those who may have struggled with minor cognitive impairment.
How to Prevent Wet Brain
Many alcoholics wonder whether it’s possible to prevent wet brain. The answer is yes. It’s possible.
Studies show that anywhere from 30% to 80% of those struggling with alcoholism symptoms have a thiamine deficiency. This deficiency causes the development of wet brain symptoms. To prevent wet brain, those struggling with alcoholism should consider taking thiamine supplements.
Heavy drinkers should consider taking anywhere from 50mg to 100mg of oral thiamine supplements per day. A person with mild thiamine deficiency should take between 5mg and 30mg of thiamine a day. A doctor often prescribes the supplements. Some pharmacies or grocery stores will stock these supplements as well.
In addition to thiamine supplements, magnesium supplements may also be useful. Since magnesium is critical for thiamine repletion, some alcoholics should consider taking magnesium supplements. These pills may help replenish the thiamine levels in their body.
While taking supplements can help, the best preventative measure is to abstain from drinking. Those who have a drinking problem should learn how to manage their drinking. They should also eat a healthier diet.
Recover from an Alcohol Addiction
If you’re struggling with an alcohol addiction, don’t let it take over your life. Don’t let the situation worsen to the point where you develop wet brain syndrome. You might sustain permanent brain damage if you don’t take action soon. Once the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome worsens, there’s no going back.
Here, at AspenRidge Recovery, we can help you treat an alcohol addiction. We offer a wide range of treatment and alcohol detox options. Depending on the severity of your addiction, we’ll recommend different types of action plans to help treat the alcoholism symptoms. We’ll also monitor the wet brain symptoms to make sure that you’re on the right track to recovery.
If you’re interested in getting help from our facility, don’t hesitate to take a virtual tour. This will give you a better idea of what to expect before you even get here. Our goal is to help you recover in a peaceful, calm and positive environment. You’ll feel right at home.