Many people wonder, “What is ‘wet brain’?” Wet brain is a slang term for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS).
It’s important to note that WKS is two conditions, and both are a type of brain damage that happens because chronic alcoholism causes a person to absorb less vitamin B1 (thiamine).
People who drink a lot of alcohol over a long period stop getting enough thiamine in their diet. Thiamine helps the body break down and use glucose for energy, so when brain cells do not have enough thiamine, they cannot break down glucose for energy. Over long periods, thiamine deficiency will kill brain cells and lead to the development of WKS.
Other conditions besides chronic alcohol abuse can also cause WKS. Any condition that leads to poor nutrition can cause WKS, but long-term alcohol abuse is one of the most common causes. Other causes include anorexia nervosa, cancer, immunodeficiencies and liver disease. Anyone can experience “wet brain” if they are severely nutrient deficient, even if they do not drink alcohol.
What Are the Symptoms of Wet Brain?
Breaking down WKS into each condition can make it easier to understand Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.
Wernicke Encephalopathy Symptoms
Wernicke encephalopathy is a life-threatening medical emergency. If someone regularly drinks alcohol and experiences these symptoms, it may be time to get medical help:
- Ataxia, or loss of muscle coordination, like a leg tremor
- Confusion that can lead to coma and death
- Ophthalmoparesis or abnormal eye movements like double vision, eyelid drooping, and back-and-forth eye movements
The symptoms above might sound similar to those of drunkenness, but they are more serious than alcohol intoxication. They will appear abnormal compared to a normal intoxicated state. Wernicke encephalopathy can happen even if the person has not been drinking, and may occur along with alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Symptoms
An episode of Wernicke encephalopathy can lead to permanent damage in the form of Korsakoff syndrome.
Even if someone recovers from the initial encephalopathy, they may have permanent physical damage. Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:
- Confabulation, or making up stories
- Moderate to severe memory loss
- Psychosis, or thought problems like hallucinations and delusions
- Trouble forming new memories
Korsakoff syndrome develops as symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy go away. Damage to memory or other thought processes is permanent.
How Is Wet Brain Diagnosed?
When someone presents signs of WKS, physicians will look for the following signs and symptoms to make a diagnosis:
- Abnormal eye movement
- Blood albumin levels (helps determine nutrition status)
- Decreased or abnormal reflexes
- Heart rate too fast
- Loss of muscle mass
- Low blood pressure
- Problems with coordination and walking
- Vitamin B1 levels in the blood
Although WKS is not the same as being intoxicated, many of the symptoms sound the same. Damage from WKS is permanent, while a buzz from alcohol will go away within a day or so.
How Is Wet Brain Treated?
Frequently, the most common method of “wet brain” treatment is supplementation with vitamin B1.
To be safe, people who come to the hospital for an alcohol-related condition will likely receive thiamine supplementation. Thiamine can be injected in a vein (intravenously) or into a muscle (intramuscularly). Thiamine is usually administered for several days to get the body’s thiamine levels back to normal.
Although WKS does not happen to every person who abuses alcohol, it is very common. If someone has problems with alcohol, their body might be deficient in vitamin B1. Sooner or later this might cause symptoms of “wet brain.” The only way to prevent it is to stop drinking alcohol and maintain a healthy diet with enough vitamin B1.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Anyone who has a nutrient deficiency is most at risk of developing “wet brain,” or WKS. Additionally, people with the following conditions are at risk of developing WKS:
- Liver disease
- Alcohol use disorder, or chronic alcohol abuse
- Eating disorders
- Gastric and colon cancers
- Gastric bypass surgery
- HIV infections
- Kidney dialysis
Vitamin supplementation, like taking B-complex vitamins, may help prevent WKS, but alcohol makes certain changes to the body that mean even supplementation might not help. Alcohol has been shown to change how the body absorbs vitamins, so even if a person takes B-complex vitamins, it might not absorb into the bloodstream. The safest step for prevention is to stop drinking alcohol.
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 client’s unique needs. Take the first step toward recovery, and speak with a representative of The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake today.
MedlinePlus. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” 2016. Accessed June 6, 2019.
Vasan, Sarayu, and Anil Kumar. “Wernicke Encephalopathy.” StatPearls Publishing, 2018. Accessed June 6, 2019.
WebMD. “What Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?” (n.d.) Accessed June 6, 2019.