What is Wet Brain?

Alcohol use disorder is a common mental health condition characterized by the unhealthy use of alcohol despite repeated patterns of negative consequences. A dangerous illness that often develops due to alcohol use disorder is wet brain. Wet brain, also known by its scientific name Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). The degenerative brain disorder is a combination of two different brain diseases: Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Psychosis. Although anyone can develop wet brain, it is most commonly occurring in those who abuse alcohol.

A virtual image of the human brain is next to a large glass of alcoholic beer and wine represents the effect of wet brain.

WKS can occur due to the lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) and malnutrition. Human bodies do not produce thiamine naturally and must obtain it through consuming certain types of foods. In those who chronically abuse alcohol, the alcohol often irritates the stomach and digestive systems. This can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb necessary nutrients and vitamins such as thiamine.

It is a difficult and challenging condition to diagnose. This is because the side effects and symptoms often mimic those of alcohol use disorder. However, one defining characteristic to distinguish between the two is the development of confusion and memory impairment. Those who suffer from alcohol use disorder develop a sense of confusion while drinking and due to being drunk. Those who suffer from WKS develop a sense of confusion even when they are not drinking or drunk.

What is Wet Brain?

Wet brain disorder is named after German neurologist Carl Wernicke and neuropsychiatrist Sergei Krosakoff. This disorder is caused by a severe thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is an essential vitamin used by the body to convert sugar into energy. Thiamine is used to process glucose. If the brain doesn’t have enough thiamine, it cannot process and produce energy which leads to neurological disorders and proper brain functions.

Wet brain can also be caused by other conditions such as cancer and the effects of chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS, kidney failure, heart failure, eating disorders such as anorexia and the effects of prolonged vomiting, gastrointestinal conditions and dietary deficiencies. However, it is most commonly associated with alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder.

The disorder is divided into two different stages with the first being Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and the second being Korsakoff Psychosis. During the first stage, damage becomes apparent in the thalamus part of the brain, which controls functions like sleep and sensory perception. It can also affect the hypothalamus, which is in charge of controlling the body temperature, and food and water intake. Symptoms can present as severe but all temporary conditions.

Infograph describing what is wet brain and how does it related to alcohol use disorder.

Other symptoms of this stage of Wernicke Encephalopathy include:

  • Balance issues
  • Confusion
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Tremors
  • Drowsiness
  • Hypothermia
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Low blood pressure
  • Abnormal eye movements – vision changes and double vision

During the second stage, patients can develop conditions of impaired memory and learning and they may experience symptoms similar to retrograde amnesia. This makes it difficult for them to retain and process new memories and information. This condition is also known as alcoholic dementia. The final stage of wet brain is the stage of cognitive decline where a part of the brain where memory is created and managed is significantly damaged.

Other symptoms of Korsakoff Psychosis include:

  • Amnesia
  • Confabulation – making up events believed to be true
  • Agitation and anger
  • Disorientation
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Irreversible memory impairment and inability to form new memories
  • Repetitious speech and actions
  • Lack of motivation and emotional apathy
  • Impaired cognition
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Delirium

Research has found that wet brain is more likely to develop in men than in women. This is only due to the fact that more men are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder compared to women. However, there are many women who have alcohol use disorder who have not been diagnosed due to fear of stigma. There is currently no cure for wet brain. But early diagnosis and treatment can help reverse some of the symptoms during the first stage of the condition.

Infograph showing different alcoholism risk factors.

Wet Brain and Alcohol Use Disorder

Wet brain is a condition caused by alcohol use disorder. Both conditions also present with very similar side effects making wet brain tricky to diagnose and treat. Many symptoms of wet brain mimic a drunk person’s characteristics as well as symptoms seen in a person with acute alcohol intoxication and alcohol withdrawal. Some common symptoms and similarities between wet brain and alcohol use disorder include:

  • Memory loss
  • Double vision
  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Loss of body heat rapid heartbeat
  • Drowsiness
  • Droopy eyelid and eye muscle weakness

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Why are people with alcohol use disorders more prone to developing Wet Brain?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, chronic alcohol use can lead to the development of thiamine deficiency, which is due to the malabsorption of the vitamin through the GI tract. Alcohol damages the lining of the stomach and digestive tract. It causes inflammation, which makes the body unable to acquire nutrients such as thiamine.

Oftentimes alcoholics and those who drink excessively, end up vomiting due to overconsumption and toxicity of alcohol. Vomiting the contents of the stomach can deter drinkers from eating meals for fear of more nausea and vomiting. The less you eat, the less likely you are to intake the nutrients you need for the body and brain to function properly.

Alcoholics and people with alcohol use disorder are also more prone to unhealthy eating. They often prefer drinking to eating. When turning to alcohol, they are depriving their body of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Thiamine can only be obtained through food and diet. And when there is a thiamine deficiency, wet brain can develop.

Treatment of Wet Brain

It can be difficult to diagnose wet brain. This is because the symptoms are so similar to that of alcohol use disorder. The memory impairment disease can be properly diagnosed with MRI scans and if caught early, is treatable and reversible. Wet brain damages nerve cells,  support cells in the brain, the spinal cord and part of the brain that is involved in memory processing and storing. One study found that over 50% of patients diagnosed with wet brain are expected to die within the following eight years.

Wet brain is a very serious condition that produces very serious consequences if not treated timely and properly. It can be treated through intense thiamine replacement therapy and complete abstinence from alcohol. These thiamine injections can improve brain function and tissue condition. This in turn, can also improve co-occurring mental health disorders as well as improvement in physical functioning. Complete recovery from wet brain is unlikely. Some people will experience long-lasting damage and memory loss, while others will only experience partial memory loss. Wet brain can occur under many different circumstances, but alcohol use disorder is the most common.

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We specialize in treating addiction and other co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD. Our Admissions specialists are available to walk you through the best options for treating your addiction.

Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder

At Hotel California by the Sea, we provide professional alcohol use disorder treatment for clients in all stages of treatment and recovery. A professional behavioral health treatment program like ourselves is best to treat this mental health condition that can further put clients at risk for developing wet brain. We provide alcohol detox, alcohol residential programs, and alcohol outpatient treatments.

In addition to any medication-based therapies, we also provide cognitive-based treatment methods. Programs such as CBT, DBT and EMDR therapy are essential in treating alcohol addiction and any co-occurring mental health conditions. Hotel California by the Sea understands what clients need in order to overcome their addiction. We aim to provide a safe and secure environment for treatment and recovery.