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Alcohol What Is Wet Brain?

Do you feel like your brain just doesn’t function like it used to? That it’s not as sharp as it was before you started drinking at heavy levels?

Maybe your thoughts seem cloudier, maybe you aren’t able to remember things as clearly, or maybe your vision seems fuzzy.

These are all signs of wet brain.

Long-term, heavy alcohol use can result in the development of many potentially fatal disorders, and wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is one of the most serious. If you believe you are struggling with serious mental or physical effects due to heavy alcohol use, do not wait to enroll in an alcohol rehab program.


What Is Wet Brain, and What Causes It?

When the brain and body are repeatedly exposed to high levels of alcohol, the result can be a disturbance in the ability to absorb vitamin B1, or thiamine. This is due to a disruption of the production of the enzyme that converts thiamine into its active state.

Thiamine is necessary for the health of every tissue in the body. When a thiamine deficiency develops, wet brain can occur.

Because the body does not naturally create thiamine, it is necessary to get enough of this important vitamin through food. An alcohol use disorder often leads to generalized malnutrition due to lack of attention paid to eating the right foods in the right amounts, and brain damage begins.

The lack of thiamine can cause biochemical lesions in the nervous system. These lesions can, in turn, trigger neurological symptoms that define wet brain.

  • Confusion
  • Altered mental state
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulties walking
  • Double vision
  • Memory loss

Wet Brain = Wernicke Encephalopathy + Korsakoff’s Psychosis

Wet brain is a slang term that is used interchangeably with the more formal name for the disorder, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome actually first involves Wernicke encephalopathy symptoms, such as memory loss and difficulties managing day-to-day tasks. It is often followed by Korsakoff’s syndrome, also referred to as Korsakoff psychosis. As symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy wear off, the symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome may begin.

Wernicke encephalopathy harms the thalamus and hypothalamus, the areas of the brain responsible for getting sensory input from the body into the cerebral cortex and managing critical automatic functions like body temperature regulation and breathing, respectively. This can impact the ability to form memories, making it difficult to learn new things or remember events that have recently happened.

Memory issues worsen considerably when Korsakoff’s syndrome begins. The gaps in memory become problematic, and someone with the disorder will begin to fabricate information to fill in those gaps. Though they are not consciously lying, confabulation can make it difficult for them to function.

Some people may even experience aural or visual hallucinations, with no ability to discern what is real and what isn’t.

saying no to alcohol

Who Has Wet Brain? 

Alcohol use disorders plague more than 16 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (NIAAA). In 2015, NIAAA estimated that more than 6 percent of the population were living with an alcohol use disorder, defined as compulsive use of alcohol that results in negative consequences such as mood dysregulation, loss of ability to moderate alcohol intake, difficulties in relationships, and/or physical health problems.

Of the 6 percent of the American population living with an alcohol use disorder, NIAAA says that as much as 80 percent of that number have a thiamine deficiency — the issue that causes wet brain.

According to the National Organization for Rare Diseases, up to 2 percent of the U.S. population are living with wet brain. This number does not account for the many people who live with the disorder and never get a diagnosis because they are older and believed to have dementia, or they are homeless and unable to seek medical care for themselves.

Not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop wet brain, but there is no level of alcohol ingestion that automatically indicates the disorder will develop. Everyone is different. While we know that heavy drinking leads to wet brain, “heavy drinking” is defined differently for different people.

The point at which thiamine deficiency develops and triggers delirium will be different for everyone. Plus, age, gender, and genetics can all play a role.

How Is Wet Brain Diagnosed and Treated?

There is no specific diagnostic testing that can be done to determine whether or not a patient is suffering from wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. In some cases, if a patient presents to a doctor with symptoms of wet brain, then a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) may be used to ensure that the cause of the problem is not physical, such as a tumor or internal bleeding.

The good news is that if signs of Wernicke encephalopathy are identified early enough and treated immediately, then the symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome may be avoided entirely. Additionally, if alcohol abuse and addiction is treated, and the person is able to find stability in abstinence, some of the effects of wet brain may even be reversed.

For example, some studies show that vision impairment caused by the disorder may abate within 24 hours after the patient stops drinking and begins thiamine treatment. Confusion and loss of control of body movements may persist for months but slowly abate as well, at least to some degree. In many cases, memory and learning ability may not return even with treatment.

Unfortunately, the prognosis for wet brain when no treatment is sought is dire. Most will not survive the disease, especially if they continue to drink and/or do not receive treatment for the thiamine deficiency.

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Treatments for Wet Brain and Alcohol Use Disorders

Treatment will be most effective the earlier the disorder is identified and treatment begins. Initially, medications may be prescribed to manage the physical symptoms associated with wet brain, especially symptoms that pertain to muscle movement and function.

Thiamine treatment has long been considered a standard part of a comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment program due to the connection between heavy alcohol intake and thiamine deficiency. Some agencies are exploring different options to test that theory. For example, one study is looking at whether or not magnesium supplementation alone or together with thiamine supplementation will create the most positive impact for patients receiving treatment for an alcohol use disorder.

It is important to note that the effects of wet brain cannot be effectively treated if you continue to drink. In order to truly find recovery, it is necessary to undergo alcohol detox with appropriate medical supervision while receiving treatment for wet brain. Then, you’ll need to follow up with continued therapeutic care for the alcohol use disorder while also addressing the co-occurring Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Get Treatment Fast

Find a treatment center that is staffed with experts and equipped with resources to effectively and proactively manage your symptoms. Ensure the program is set up to continue providing medical care while simultaneously developing and implementing a comprehensive plan to address your alcohol use disorder.

It will take time and patience, especially as you are healing from extreme brain damage due to chronic drinking. But it is possible to find recovery and a new life without addiction that is far better than a life controlled by alcohol.

Alcohol Use Disorder. (2016). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (NIAAA).

The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease. (2003). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

What Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome? (December 2018). Medical News Today.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. (March 2019). MedlinePlus.

Korsakoff Syndrome. Alzheimer’s Association.

Rare Disease Database. National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD).

Thiamine Deficiency and Delirium. (April 2013). Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience.

Wernicke Encephalopathy. (March 2018). Merck Manual Professional Version.

Alcohol: Thiamine and or Magnesium 1 (AToM1). (May 2018). U.S. National Library of Medicine Clinical Trials.

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