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 almost 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 untreated Wernicke encephalopathy. Symptoms include memory loss, trouble concentrating, and sometimes even personality changes. At this stage, brain damage may be 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 common is wet brain?

Less than 2% of the population suffers from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, so the disease is relatively 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 (up to 80%). 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.

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!

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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