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Wet Brain Syndrome: Signs & Treatment

Wet brain syndrome, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a serious disorder that can cause permanent brain damage and be life-threatening if left untreated. This syndrome occurs due to a vitamin B1 deficiency that can be caused by heavy alcohol use, but other factors like chronic illnesses and weight loss surgery can also contribute. This article discusses the signs and symptoms of wet brain, as well as treatment options available. While the damage caused by wet brain can be permanent, prompt treatment can greatly reduce the level of harm a person experiences.

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Wet brain syndrome, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is one of the most serious disorders associated with heavy alcohol use. Left untreated, it can cause significant permanent brain damage and be life-threatening. 

What Is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy go away before Korsakoff syndrome manifests.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, often referred to as wet brain syndrome, is a pair of conditions, Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome, that often occur together. 

This syndrome is more common in those who have alcohol use disorder (AUD), although that is not the only thing that can contribute to a person’s risk of developing it (discussed more later). It is a very serious occurrence that can cause long-lasting, potentially permanent brain damage that can sometimes be fatal.

What Causes Wet Brain Syndrome?

This brain disorder occurs as a result of a vitamin B1, or thiamine, deficiency. Alcohol use disorder can commonly result in such a deficiency, but a vitamin B1 deficiency is also common in people whose bodies can’t absorb food properly. 

It’s also a possible occurrence as a result of weight-loss surgery or certain chronic illnesses, including HIV/AIDs and cancer.

Signs & Symptoms of Wet Brain

Again, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is two conditions that often occur together. As such, there are two distinct sets of symptoms associated with this syndrome: those related to Wernicke encephalopathy and those related to Korsakoff syndrome.

Wernicke Encephalopathy Symptoms

Wernicke encephalopathy is characterized by confusion and a loss of mental activity that gets progressively worse. This has the potential to lead to coma and death if not properly addressed. 

A person may lose muscle coordination, resulting in leg tremors. This condition can cause a variety of vision changes, including abnormal eye movements, eyelid drooping, and double vision.

Korsakoff Syndrome Symptoms

If a person survives, as Wernicke encephalopathy symptoms fade, they may then develop Korsakoff syndrome, also called Korsakoff psychosis. This occurs as a result of long-lasting and potentially permanent brain damage to areas of the brain associated with memory. 

A person with Korsakoff syndrome may be unable to form new memories, can experience potentially severe memory loss, may frequently make up stories without realizing they are untrue, and may experience auditory and visual hallucinations. 

Medical Emergency

Both of these conditions warrant immediate medical attention, with the potential to cause a person long-lasting harm. Even if they survive, symptoms can make everyday life more or less impossible without help. 

Prompt, effective treatment has the potential to greatly reduce the overall harm a person experiences. It reduces the level of permanent damage they’re likely to experience. Get medical care at the first sign of symptoms.

Treatment Options for Wet Brain

The goals of treatment are to help control symptoms and prevent the disorder from getting worse, while helping to raise a person’s vitamin B1 levels.

Initially, a person may need to go to the hospital for treatment, which will likely be essential if they’re experiencing periods of unconsciousness, lethargy, or are in a coma.

A vitamin B1 injection will probably be given as soon as possible. This can cause significant improvement to some symptoms associated with this syndrome, but it won’t directly fix memory loss or reduction to intellect as a result of brain damage. 

While future harm can be reduced by helping the person develop a nourishing, balanced diet, they will generally need to stop drinking if they’re going to see significant improvement and meaningfully reduce their risk of future complications. 

Depending on the severity of a person’s symptoms, they may have difficulties functioning in their everyday life without help. They may be unable to drive, make and execute plans, and hold long-term employment. However, they can often recover some or most of their autonomy with treatment and enough time.

Is This Damage Reversible?

The unfortunate reality is that Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is associated with permanent brain damage as a result of Korsakoff syndrome. Not all memory and intellect loss can be recovered, although it is still critical to get properly treated, as this can reduce the overall level of damage a person experiences. 

With that said, a person can still experience some recovery to their memory with proper treatment for wet brain. This recovery will likely be slow, and it is unlikely that they will ever completely recover to the place they were before they developed brain damage. Still, prompt treatment is the best path forward, including treatment of alcohol use disorder.

Updated April 27, 2023
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  2. Thiamine Deficiency Unrelated to Alcohol Consumption in High-Income Countries: A Literature Review. (February 2021). Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
  3. Vision Loss as a Presenting Feature of Wernicke Encephalopathy. (September 2019). Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology.
  4. The Evolution and Treatment of Korsakoff’s Syndrome. (May 2012). Neuropsychology Review.
  5. High-Dose Thiamine Strategy in Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome and Related Thiamine Deficiency Conditions Associated With Alcohol Use Disorder. (March–April 2021). Indian Journal of Psychiatry.
  6. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
  7. The Korsakoff Syndrome: Clinical Aspects, Psychology and Treatment. (March–April 2009). Alcohol and Alcoholism.
  8. Comprehensive Review of Wernicke Encephalopathy: Pathophysiology, Clinical Symptoms and Imaging Findings. (May 2020). Japanese Journal of Radiology.
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