Wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is caused by a thiamine deficiency that often stems from excessive alcohol use. This condition leads to brain damage that can become permanent if not treated.

What Is Wet Brain?

Wet brain is a type of brain damage caused by low levels of thiamine. Also called vitamin B1, thiamine is an essential nutrient for brain health and severely impacts the brain when deficiencies occur. While thiamine deficiencies can occur from starvation, they are most often caused by heavy alcohol use in developed nations.

Alcohol affects how the body absorbs thiamine, and people who misuse alcohol are also frequently malnourished, further increasing the problem. Thiamine deficiency causes inflammation called Wernicke encephalopathy. This inflammation eventually causes permanent damage called Korsakoff syndrome.

Wet Brain Stages

There are two stages to wet brain. The early stage, known as Wernicke encephalopathy, is more intense but reversible. The late sage, called Korsakoff syndrome, is permanent.

Wernicke Encephalopathy

Wernicke encephalopathy is the early stage of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This stage is caused by inflammation that occurs in the brain and is temporary. Either Wernicke encephalopathy will transition into the second stage of wet brain and cause permanent brain damage, or it will be treated and resolved without causing damage. It will only resolve, however, if the thiamin deficiency is treated. Wernicke encephalopathy can also lead to death and is considered the most dangerous stage of wet brain because it can quickly cause coma and death.

Korsakoff Psychosis

Korsakoff psychosis, also called Korsakoff syndrome, is the late stage of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This stage of wet brain results in permanent brain damage that cannot be treated. While Korsakoff psychosis is less likely to cause a coma or death than Wernicke encephalopathy, it is a form of brain damage that will normally require someone to be constantly taken care of.

Signs and Symptoms of Wet Brain

The symptoms of wet brain vary based on whether it is in the early, reversible stage or the later, permanent stage. 

Signs and Symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy

There is a “triad” of three symptoms that almost always occur with Wernicke encephalopathy. These include:

  • Altered mental status
  • Difficulty walking normally
  • Abnormalities in eye movement

Other signs of Wernicke encephalopathy include:

  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Memory problems
  • Decreased body temperature
  • Tremors
  • Coma

Signs and Symptoms of Korsakoff Syndrome

Korsakoff syndrome symptoms are permanent and primarily affect memory and perception of reality. Symptoms of Korsakoff psychosis include:

  • Confusion
  • Memory loss, especially difficulty forming new memories
  • Difficulty learning new skills
  • Personality changes
  • Inability to tell memory problems exist
  • Difficulty concentrating

People with Korsakoff syndrome often experience confabulation, a condition in which someone subconsciously makes new memories to fill in gaps in the memory. Someone with confabulation will often repeat these made-up memories, thinking they are real. This gives them the appearance of lying when it is actually related to their brain damage.

Who Is Most at Risk of Developing Wet Brain?

People who use alcohol heavily over a prolonged period are most at risk of developing wet brain. Heavy alcohol use is defined as drinking more than four drinks in one day or more than 14 drinks in one week in men. For women, heavy alcohol use is considered drinking more than three drinks in one day or more than seven drinks in a week.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can occur from reasons other than alcohol use; however, the term “wet brain” refers only to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome caused by alcohol use. By its definition, wet brain can only be caused by alcohol use. Not everyone who uses alcohol will develop wet brain, but the only way to get wet brain is by drinking alcohol.

How Dangerous Is Wet Brain?

In severe cases, about 10–15%, wet brain can lead to death. If untreated, wet brain can also lead to permanent brain damage that cannot be reversed, even if alcohol use is stopped and thiamine levels are fully replaced.

Can Wet Brain Be Reversed?

Wet brain can be reversed if it is caught and treated early. Initially, wet brain leads to inflammation in the brain. If thiamine is given in these initial stages, wet brain can be quickly reversed. As the condition progresses, however, the inflammation leads to permanent damage. This cannot be reversed, even with treatment and alcohol cessation.

Wet Brain Treatment

The treatment for wet brain is actually quite simple. Replacing thiamine will stop the progression of wet brain and reverse symptoms caused by its early stage. Stopping alcohol use will prevent wet brain from developing again or progressing further if it is already permanent.

Stopping alcohol use can be difficult, but it is essential if you are at risk of developing wet brain or have experienced it before. At The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake, we understand how stressful overcoming an alcohol addiction can be. Our caring staff provides state-of-the-art treatments to keep you as comfortable and safe as possible during alcohol withdrawal and beyond, supporting you with the tools you need to achieve and maintain recovery.

Contact us today to learn how we can help you achieve lasting recovery from alcohol addiction.

If you know someone who abuses alcohol or you need help yourself, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake can help. Our facility offers comprehensive treatment programs for each patient’s unique needs. Take the first step toward recovery, and speak with a Recovery Advocate of The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake today.

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Editor – Theresa Valenzky
Theresa Valenzky graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Arts in News/Mass Media Communication and a certificate in psychology. She is passionate about providing genuine information to encourage and guide healing in all aspects of life. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more

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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Drinking Levels Defined”>.” 2022. Accessed July 15, 2022.

Vasan, Sarayu & Kumar, Anil. “Wernicke Encephalopathy”>.” StatPearls, April 30, 2022. Accessed July 15, 2022.

O’Malley, Gerald F. & O’Malley, Rika. “Korsakoff Psychosis”>.” Merck Manuals, May 2020. Accessed July 15, 2022.

Salen, Philip N. “Wernicke Encephalopathy”>.” Medscape, November 20, 2018. Accessed July 15, 2022.

Alzheimer’s Society. “Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome”>.” 2022. Accessed July 15, 2022.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.