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Updated on October 1, 2021

Wet Brain Syndrome (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome)

What is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain syndrome is officially called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It is a brain disorder linked to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. 

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a common issue for people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) and/or those with poor nutrition. 

The vast majority of people with severe AUD – as much as 80 percent – have developed a thiamine deficiency.1

A very small percentage of the general population is at risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff. However, alcoholics have a 12 to 14 percent risk.2

Wet brain syndrome is reversible in its earliest stages. Left untreated, long-term effects like muscle coordination, confusion, and hallucinations can develop. Wet brain syndrome can be fatal.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a combination of two different conditions: 

1. Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is temporary and includes: 

  • Severe confusion
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Vision changes
  • Loss of coordination

2. Korsakoff’s psychosis

Korsakoff’s psychosis arises beside or after Wernicke’s encephalopathy. It’s a persistent and chronic condition that causes memory and learning impairment. 

The two occur in conjunction with one another most commonly in long-term alcohol users. 

How Wet Brain Impacts Memory, Learning, Mood & Behavior

Wet brain syndrome has a significant impact on a person’s: 

  • Memory
  • Learning ability
  • Mood
  • Behavior 

Wernicke encephalopathy causes acute, repairable damage to the thalamus and hypothalamus. Korsakoff psychosis causes permanent brain damage that affects memory.

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What are the Stages of Wet Brain?

Wet brain syndrome occurs in two stages:

The first, Wernicke encephalopathy, causes damage to the lower part of the brain. If treated early, the damage is reversible.

The second stage of wet brain syndrome is Korsakoff psychosis. It is not reversible and affects the part of the brain that processes and stores memories. 

It also affects the nervous system and cognitive functioning. 

The second stage of wet brain develops when the first stage goes untreated. 

What Causes Wet Brain Syndrome? 

Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency causes wet brain syndrome. 

There are many different causes of vitamin B1 deficiency, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Anorexia
  • Generally poor diet
  • Pregnancy
  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD)

Long-term AUD is the most common cause of vitamin B deficiency.3

Vitamin B/thiamine deficiency causes damage to the brain, as well as the heart and nervous system. It’s an essential factor in building enzymes responsible for processing and converting sugar to energy. 

The Connection Between Alcohol & Wet Brain

Consuming alcohol causes inflammation in the digestive system. This prevents the proper absorption of thiamine. 

Very few people with alcohol use disorder eat a healthy, balanced diet. They also don't supplement with vitamins. 

If this lack of good nutrition continues for too long, serious health problems like wet brain syndrome become a risk.

Sadly, many cases of Wernicke syndrome go unnoticed. This is, in part, because the symptoms of early-stage Wernicke syndrome mimic drunkenness. 

Many people, healthcare providers included, dismiss early signs of wet brain syndrome. They assume the symptoms are caused by intoxication.

Failing to treat the condition in its early stages allows it to progress and become untreatable. For this reason, some doctors now take a more aggressive approach to treatment.  

People showing signs of Wernicke’s are given thiamine supplements. Doing so won’t hurt. It could also potentially prevent a severe, untreatable, and possibly fatal condition.

Symptoms of Wet Brain

Symptoms of wet brain syndrome include:

  • Chronic confusion, especially about time and location
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Leg tremors
  • Balance problems
  • Drowsiness
  • Double vision
  • Eyelid drooping and squinting
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Problems with creating and/or storing new memories
  • Visual and/or auditory hallucinations
  • Behavioral changes
  • Lying or making up stories
  • Frustration
  • Irritability
  • Resistance to help and treatment
  • Coma
  • Death

These symptoms occur together or separately and in varying degrees of severity. Some people experience only a few, while others develop many of the symptoms. 

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How to Treat Wet Brain 

Wet brain syndrome is treatable if caught in the early stages. Treatment is relatively easy. 

The most common treatment approaches for wet brain include:

  • Abstaining from alcohol
  • High-dose thiamine supplementation

You can take thiamine supplements orally or intravenously. Additional supplements might also be a part of treatment to further improve health.

Is Wet Brain Syndrome Reversible?

Yes, as long as you treat it in its early stages.

Whether or not wet brain syndrome can be reversed for someone is based on:

  • Severity of symptoms
  • How early treatment begins
  • The type of treatment provided

Typically, a full recovery is impossible. But the severest symptoms can be eliminated or become manageable. 

The longer someone lives with the symptoms of wet brain syndrome, the less chance there is of reversing the condition. 

Heavy alcohol use directly damages brain cells. So, it might be difficult to determine if permanent issues are caused by wet brain thiamine deficiency or alcohol use in general. 

How to Prevent Wet Brain 

The best way to prevent wet brain syndrome is to avoid heavy alcohol use. It also helps to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. 

If you have a history of AUD, or currently struggle with AUD, it helps to have your vitamin levels checked. 

Heavy alcohol use interferes with your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Don’t assume that taking a vitamin B1 vitamin will be enough to prevent problems. 

The best approach is to work with your doctor to determine where you stand regarding nutrient balance. This way you can create a medically supervised plan to supplement and improve your health.

Treatment for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction 

Treating alcohol misuse and addiction is one of the best ways to avoid developing wet brain syndrome and other health issues related to heavy alcohol use.

The best AUD treatment programs are comprehensive. They include medically supervised detox to prevent and address potentially serious withdrawal symptoms. 

Once the body has detoxified, other treatment options can begin. These include:

  • Individual counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Group and peer counseling
  • Behavioral therapy to help people deal with alcohol cravings, identify their use triggers, find better coping mechanisms, and reduce the risk of relapse
  • Self-help groups
  • 12-step programs

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Resources

MORE
LESS

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “ALCOHOL’S DAMAGING EFFECTS on the BRAIN.” US Department of Health and Human Services, 2004. 

Kopelman, M. D., et al. “The Korsakoff Syndrome: Clinical Aspects, Psychology and Treatment.” Alcohol and Alcoholism, vol. 44, no. 2, 16 Jan. 2009, pp. 148–154.

Shweta Akhouri, and Edward J Newton. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.” Nih.gov, StatPearls Publishing, 15 Mar. 2019.

Kopelman, M. D., et al. “The Korsakoff Syndrome: Clinical Aspects, Psychology and Treatment.” Alcohol and Alcoholism, vol. 44, no. 2, 16 Jan. 2009, pp. 148–154, academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/44/2/148/185585, 10.1093/alcalc/agn118. 

Martin, P.R., Singleton, C.K., & Hiller-Sturmhöfel, S. (2003). “The role of thiamine deficiency in alcoholic brain disease.” Alcohol Research and Health, 27(2), 134-142. 

Dementia.org. (2020). “Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.”

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