What is wet brain?

What is Wet Brain? Graphic - Woman holding head while dizzy.

Wet brain is a form of brain damage that results from repeat and heavy drinking. Also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, wet brain stems from thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Alcohol hinders the absorption, activation and storage of thiamine. The brain needs thiamine to function.

Wet brain has a sudden onset and does not happen gradually. Lesions form on the brain causing obvious mental confusion and physical coordination issues. The parts of the brain responsible for memory are permanently damaged. The result is alcoholism-induced dementia.

Normal brain scan, middle stage brain scan, late stage brain scan

What are the symptoms of wet brain?

The initial symptoms are the most serious and last a few days or weeks, though all symptoms don’t always occur.

  • Confusion
  • Loss of muscle coordination, including the inability to walk
  • Trouble seeing, including double-vision and involuntary eye movements
  • In extreme cases, loss of mental activity that leads to a coma or death

After these symptoms, around 80-90% of people later experience the following permanent symptoms:

  • Short-term memory loss (inability to develop new memories)
  • Long-term memory loss
  • Hallucinations (visual and auditory)

People who have late-stage Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome resemble dementia patients. The most obvious symptoms are forgetfulness and trouble with coordination, which leads to difficulty walking and moving independently. Individuals with advanced Korsakoff symptoms do not usually go to alcohol treatment centers, but instead require long-term care facilities, like nursing homes. In many cases, their symptoms make further alcohol treatment impossible.

Is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome the same thing as wet brain?

Wet brain is a somewhat antiquated term for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke and Korsakoff are two distinct phases of the same illness. Wernicke encephalopathy is characterized by brain bleeding that causes early-stage neurological symptoms, like confusion and loss of muscle coordination. Wernicke encephalopathy can be treated with thiamine supplements, but time is of the essence.

Korsakoff syndrome is the resulting psychosis that comes after the initial brain damage is untreated. The symptoms include memory loss, trouble concentrating, and sometimes even personality changes. At this stage, brain damage is permanent.

What causes wet brain?

Typically, wet brain is caused by a thiamine deficiency resulting from alcoholism. In rare cases, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be caused by a lack of thiamine in a person’s diet, due to eating disorders or malnutrition. However, in over two decades of practice I’ve never seen someone with wet brain symptoms that were not directly caused by alcoholism.

How long does wet brain last?

The duration of wet brain symptoms depends on how far the disease has progressed by the time the thiamine deficiency is treated. When caught in the acute stage, symptoms like confusion and problems with balance clear up in days or weeks.

However, once it progresses to a chronic condition, the neurological effects are usually permanent. According to a study from the University of Louisville, about 25% of people with Wernicke-Korsakoff will require long term care in an institution.

How common is wet brain?

Less than 2% of the population suffers from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, so the disease is rare. Most alcoholics do not make it to the wet brain stage of alcoholism. For better or worse, they either get help or face the consequences of their drinking that force them to stop.

That said, many alcoholics come to treatment deficient in thiamine. Once they stop drinking and improve their diet, their levels return to normal.

Do I have wet brain?

While wet brain is considered a rare disease, up to 80% of alcoholics have a thiamine deficiency. This deficiency can cause brain damage outside of a full wet brain diagnosis. Tying together rough estimates, as high as 1 in every 7 alcoholics may develop wet brain, usually between ages 30-70.

If you had Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, you would likely know it because the symptoms are so noticeable and happen so quickly. For example, people with wet brain usually experience multiple days in a row with limited muscle movement or trouble seeing with no other explanations. Typically, alcoholics develop wet brain after years of drinking.

Can one night of drinking cause brain damage?

While the onset of symptoms is rapid, thiamine deficiencies take time to develop. This means that a single night of heavy drinking will not cause Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome. However, that doesn’t mean that it has no lasting effects on the brain. Other forms of alcohol-induced brain damage can develop after just a single night of binge drinking, especially if alcohol poisoning occurs.

Can I get wet brain from beer?

Yes, all forms of alcohol can cause a thiamine deficiency, including beer. However, since the alcohol content is lower when compared to liquor and wine, it takes more to achieve the same effects. Still, individuals vary in their susceptibility to thiamine deficiency, and for some people, it can be triggered more easily than in others.

Can you die from drinking alcohol every day?

Yes, it is possible for someone to die from daily drinking due to the build-up of effects on the body. After continued abuse, the body’s organs will become damaged and start shutting down. Wet brain is just one example of the consequences of untreated alcoholism.

However, there is no set amount per day or length of time that is the universal point at which daily drinking turns deadly. The best route to take is for individuals with problematic drinking habits to stop consuming alcohol.

How do I prevent wet brain?

The best way to prevent wet brain is to stop drinking alcohol. Wet brain is just one very serious and very real consequence of continued drinking. I know it’s not easy, but it is possible!  (We see it every day at our Bowling Green, Murfreesboro, Panama City and military alcohol rehabs).

Alcoholics that are experiencing wet brain symptoms should get medical attention immediately to prevent further damage.

Sources

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease.”
National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.”

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