Alcohol abuse can lead to numerous health problems, and sadly, some of them can be severe and life-threatening. One of those conditions is known as “wet brain,” an informal term for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).

This syndrome is a serious brain disorder, which is caused by a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1), and it’s often linked to alcohol use disorder.

This blog explores Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, with information on its symptoms, causes, and potential treatment options.

What is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain syndrome (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome) is actually a term used to describe two separate but related conditions: These are called Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.

These neurological conditions are stages of the same disease process and typically occur together.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is the acute phase of the disorder. It involves neurological symptoms that appear suddenly and require immediate medical attention.

Key symptoms of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy include:

  • Confusion
  • Ataxia (lack of muscle coordination)
  • Ocular abnormalities, such as rapid eye movement and double vision.
  • Hypothermia
  • Loss of the ability to walk

Wernicke’s encephalopathy can progress to Korsakoff’s psychosis if it’s left untreated.

Korsakoff’s Psychosis

Korsakoff’s psychosis is the chronic phase of the disorder. This usually develops as Wernicke’s symptoms subside.

Korsakoff’s psychosis phase mainly affects the individual’s memory and cognitive functions. Symptoms can include:

  • Severe memory loss
  • Feeling disorientated
  • Apathy (Having a general lack of interest in things that might be happening or loved ones).
  • Difficulty forming new memories
  • Confabulation (making up stories to fill in memory gaps)
  • Trouble learning new information and skills

What Are the Main Causes of Wet Brain Syndrome?

The biggest cause of wet brain syndrome is a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), which is linked to those with alcohol addiction or who engage in excessive alcohol consumption.

Chronic alcohol consumption can lead to thiamine deficiency in several ways:

  • People who are living with alcohol addiction often have poor diets. This can lead to their bodies not receiving a sufficient intake of essential vitamins, including thiamine.
  • Alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb and store thiamine.
  • Alcohol can increase the rate at which thiamine is excreted from the body.

Although alcohol use disorder is the most common cause of wet brain syndrome, this condition can also result from other disorders that cause thiamine deficiency. Some examples of other conditions that can cause an individual to develop wet brain syndrome are severe malnutrition and eating disorders.

Diagnosing Wet Brain Syndrome

Recognising the symptoms of a wet brain early can make a significant difference in treatment outcomes.

As mentioned earlier, the key symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are confusion, difficulty with coordination and balance, and eye movement issues. As the condition progresses to Korsakoff’s psychosis, symptoms like severe memory problems, making up stories, and learning difficulties become more prominent.

If you notice these signs, it’s incredibly important to seek medical advice. Don’t wait. It’s better to tell a trained medical professional sooner rather than later about what you or a loved one is experiencing because diagnosing wet brain syndrome can be quite a challenging process. This is because the symptoms are similar to those of other neurological disorders.

Medical professionals use a combination of clinical evaluations, medical history, and diagnostic tests to identify the condition. These may include blood tests to measure thiamine levels, imaging tests like MRI or CT scans to detect brain changes, and neuropsychological tests to assess memory and cognitive functions.

Treatment Options for Wet Brain Syndrome

Immediate treatment is incredibly important for individuals with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This is so that permanent brain damage can be prevented.

Thiamine supplements will be provided to the individual living with wet brain syndrome. These may be administered orally or intravenously to replenish thiamine levels quickly. It’ll also be recommended that the individual follows a healthy diet and that alcohol should be avoided to prevent any further damage, allowing the body to recover gradually.

In the early stages, especially during Wernicke’s encephalopathy, fast intervention that involves thiamine replenishment can help with reversing symptoms and prevent progression to Korsakoff’s psychosis. However, once Korsakoff’s psychosis develops, some cognitive deficits may become permanent. Symptoms can still be treated (and even sometimes improve) with ongoing care.

Can You Prevent Wet Brain Syndrome?

Preventing wet brain syndrome primarily involves addressing the root cause, which is typically alcohol abuse. Here are some key pieces of advice that may help prevent this condition from developing:

  • Limiting alcohol intake to recommended levels can reduce the risk of thiamine deficiency.
  • Eating a balanced diet that includes essential nutrients.
  • Going to your GP for health check-ups can help identify early signs of nutritional deficiencies and other related health issues.
  • Professional treatment programmes for alcohol addiction can provide the necessary support to achieve and maintain sobriety.

Living with Wet Brain Syndrome

For those diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, ongoing medical care and support are essential. Rehabilitation programmes can also help individuals regain some cognitive functions and learn strategies to cope with memory loss and other challenges. Support from family and friends, along with professional counselling, can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals living with this condition.

Although living with a wet brain can be challenging, individuals can manage their symptoms, improve their quality of life and have a level of independence with the right support and treatment.

Find Support for Alcohol Use Disorder Today

We hope you’ve found our article informative. And remember, understanding and addressing the impacts of chronic alcoholism can make a significant difference in preventing someone from developing wet brain syndrome.

If you suspect that you or someone you know may be at risk or living with an alcohol dependency, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. At Ocean Recovery, we’re proud to provide comprehensive programmes for alcohol use disorder, providing the care and treatment required to achieve lasting recovery.

Contact us today at 0800 880 7596.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: May 29, 2024

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.