How Years Of Alcohol Abuse Can Lead To “Wet Brain” (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome)

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), also called “wet brain”, is a type of dementia that some people going through alcoholism might develop, usually towards the end stages. It’s caused by a deficiency in vitamin B1 (thiamine), which helps the body turn food into energy.

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What’s Thiamine?

Thiamine is an important nutrient and all of the tissues in the body, including the brain, need it to function correctly. The body then takes thiamine to make a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that transports energy within cells. A deficiency in thiamine can seriously impact the nervous system, the heart, and brain function.

Symptoms Of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a combination of two separate conditions; Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis. Together, the two produce a long list of symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Dramatic changes to vision
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Speech impediments
  • Hallucinations
  • Hard time swallowing
  • Memory loss and confabulation (when an individual makes up stories to fill the gaps of memory loss and claiming them to be true)
  • Inability to make sense when they speak
  • Laziness

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Separately, Wernicke’s encephalopathy occurs when there’s damage to the brain’s thalamus (which controls several processes, like sleep and sensory perception) and the hypothalamus (which controls body temperature, food, and water intake, hunger and thirst, etc.), and Korsakoff psychosis occurs because of the damage to these parts of the brain where memories are created and managed.

Sometimes these symptoms can be hard to figure out in a person who is habitually intoxicated, but the very first sign of something wrong is a sudden feeling of confusion that is not caused by drinking. This differs from intoxicated confusion because it lasts even when the individual hasn’t been drinking. In the beginning, the ability to form new memories will be damaged; the end-stage of WKS is coma and death if left untreated.

The Causes Of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)

Although WKS is not caused solely by consuming alcohol, the typical lifestyle of a person habitually drinking alcohol where good nutrition is also often neglected does increase the likelihood of developing the disorder. The individual who lacks a proper diet over long periods of time can lead to several nutritional deficiencies, especially thiamine. A lack of thiamine in a person’s diet can interfere with glucose metabolism and weakening the brain.

Treating Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

If caught early on, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is treatable through thiamine injections, which can improve an individual’s brain function and tissue condition. Most who find their way towards recovery can benefit from regaining all of what was lost, including vision and memory. Others who are treated later will have to deal with what was done to them from wet brain but can adapt to the change and abstain from alcohol completely with the proper care and assistance. Medications used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease can also prove beneficial in helping the individual improve their memory.

However, if Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome has developed into the later stages and has been previously untreated, the brain is less likely to recover. In this instance, the best course of action is to prevent any additional deterioration by abstaining from further alcohol abuse.

Preventing Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

The absolute best way to avoid wet brain is to eat a balanced, healthy diet and not drinking alcohol, or to only drink in moderation, though sometimes this isn’t always the case. Those who consume alcohol heavily may be able to reduce their risk of WKS by taking regular thiamine supplements, though they would still be at risk from the additional side effects of long-term alcohol abuse.

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