Wet Brain Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Last Medical Reviewer On: March 11, 2024
Updated On: Mar. 11, 2024
3 min read
Written by:

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

Medical Review by:

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, M.D., M.S.

Wet Brain Syndrome
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    What you will learn

    • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a rare brain disorder called Wet Brain Syndrome.
    • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is caused by vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, often caused by long-term alcohol abuse or addiction.
    • Wet Brain Syndrome can have severe symptoms that worsen with time, including poor coordination, confusion, and hallucinations.
    • Early treatment is crucial to reverse the effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.
    • Without treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be life-threatening.

    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, also known as Wet Brain Syndrome, is a rare brain disorder that results from vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. It’s often seen in people who have poor nutrition caused by long-term alcoholism or heavy drinking.

    Without treatment, Wet Brain Syndrome can cause confusion, poor muscle coordination, and hallucinations. Find out more about Wet Brain Syndrome, its causes and symptoms, and the treatments available.

    What Is Wet Brain Syndrome?

    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (Wet Brain Syndrome) is a rare, severe, and life-threatening brain disorder that’s often associated with chronic alcohol misuse and severe alcohol use disorder (AUD). It can have other causes as well.

    This syndrome involves two different brain disorders that usually occur simultaneously: Wernicke’s disease and Korsakoff’s psychosis. They involve brain damage associated with AUD and vitamin B1 deficiency. In people with severe AUD, poor nutrition affects the digestive system’s ability to absorb vitamin B1 from food, increasing the likelihood of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

    The first aspect of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is a severe and temporary condition that causes confusion, loss of coordination, vision changes, and abnormal eye movements.[1] The second aspect is Korsakoff’s psychosis, which is a persistent, chronic condition that can impair learning and memory.[2]

    Only about 1% to 2% of the general population will develop Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, but it’s often seen among people who misuse alcohol, with rates estimated between 12% and 14%.[3]

    While “Wet Brain Syndrome” is a colloquial term for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, it is important to approach the condition with sensitivity and awareness of its medical nature. Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and alcohol misuse are recognized medical conditions, and the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a complex interplay of factors, including nutrition, genetics, and the body’s ability to absorb and use vitamins.

    Causes of Wet Brain Syndrome

    Vitamin B1 (thiamine) is an essential nutrient only obtained through diet. A long-term thiamine deficiency can damage the brain, nerves, and heart.

    Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to poor nutrition, ultimately causing thiamine deficiency. People who drink heavily regularly may eat less or eat a poor diet, affecting the amount of thiamine they get from food.

    In addition, alcohol creates inflammation in the digestive tract, so even when the diet contains thiamine, it’s more difficult to absorb. Heavy drinking can also make it more difficult for the body to process and use any thiamine that is absorbed.

    Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

    Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

    The symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be easy to miss as they mimic those of alcohol intoxication. Even if the person stops drinking, they can persist.

    Each condition involved in Wernicke-Korsakoff has unique symptoms. The symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include mental confusion, loss of muscular coordination, and eye movement dysfunction.[4] Eventually, the nerves that control the eyes may become paralyzed, causing drooping lids, involuntary eye movements, and difficulty tracking objections. Some people with Wernicke’s encephalopathy may walk with a staggered movement or lose their ability to walk completely.

    Korsakoff psychosis, which may be referred to as “alcoholic amnestic disorder,” has additional symptoms, including amnesia, behavioral changes, and hallucinations.[5] The amnesia may be retrograde, with difficulty remembering past information, and anterograde, with difficulty forming new memories. People may fill in gaps in their memory by making up false stories (confabulation).

    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is progressive and will worsen without treatment. It can be life-threatening in the later stages, leading to symptoms like severe lethargy, loss of consciousness, coma, and death. There are additional complications that can occur, such as injuries caused by falls, permanent loss of cognitive skills, and permanent alcoholic neuropathy.

    Treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome may be reversible if treated early enough, but it depends on the severity of the person’s symptoms and other factors. A full recovery is possible but rare. Thiamine therapy can show improvement in symptoms after about 5 to 12 days.[6]

    The primary treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is intense thiamine supplementation, especially in the early stages. It may be provided as an oral supplement or through intravenous injection. Additional vitamins and minerals may be necessary to fill nutritional gaps and ensure the body can process the thiamine supplement.

    Ideally, someone getting treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome will also get treatment for alcohol addiction. This is important to slow the progression of symptoms and improve the treatment.

    However, it’s dangerous to quit drinking alcohol cold turkey once dependence develops. Alcohol withdrawal can have serious complications like delirium, tremors, seizures, and possible death. Medical detox is necessary to manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce the likelihood of complications under medical supervision.

    Following detox, it’s crucial to get treatment for the psychological aspects of addiction with a full treatment program. Alcohol rehab is individualized, but it may include inpatient or outpatient treatment with a combination of therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, individual therapy, group counseling, and family counseling.

    Get Help for Alcohol Addiction

    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, or “Wet Brain Syndrome,” is a rare but serious risk of long-term heavy drinking and AUD. Early treatment for both the condition and alcohol addiction offers the best chance of reversing the condition and preventing devastating, permanent complications.

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    Frequently Asked Questions About Wet Brain Syndrome

    01

    What Is the Life Expectancy of a Wet Brain Person?

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    The life expectancy of someone with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is highly variable. According to one study, over 50% of patients diagnosed with the condition are likely to die within 8 years.[7] Other complications from AUD, such as liver disease, can significantly shorten the lifespan.

    02

    Can Brain Damage from Alcohol Be Reversed?

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    Some alcohol-related brain damage is reversible with early treatment, but it depends on how severe the condition and symptoms are, what other complications arise, and other factors.

    03

    Does Wet Brain Show Up on an MRI?

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    An MRI may show evidence of swelling from Wernicke encephalopathy, but a combination of tests and symptoms often diagnoses the condition.

    04

    Why Is Thiamine Given to Alcoholics?

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    Thiamine supplementation is crucial for reducing the risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a thiamine deficiency-related condition caused by poor nutrition.

    05

    Is Alcoholic Dementia the Same as Wet Brain?

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    Alcoholic dementia, or alcohol-related dementia, is a type of alcohol-related brain damage that can have similar symptoms to dementia, such as memory loss and difficulty with thought processes and complex tasks. While this is similar to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, the two conditions have distinctive classifications.[8]

    06

    Is Alcoholism a leading cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

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    Alcoholism is a high risk for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, but any condition that causes vitamin B1 deficiency can increase the risk. HIV, heart failure with diuretic therapy, long periods of intravenous nutrition, long-term dialysis, extremely high thyroid hormone levels, cancers, and extreme nausea and vomiting that may occur during pregnancy can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

    07

    How Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Diagnosed?

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    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be difficult to diagnose because it mimics intoxication. An array of tests may be performed, including eye movement tests, blood tests to check organ function and nutrition levels, and an MRI.

    Sources
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    [01]

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome#:~:text=What%20is%20Wernicke%2DKorsakoff%20syndrome,(Wernicke%2DKorsakoff%20syndrome) on 2024, March 22.

    [02]

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome#:~:text=What%20is%20Wernicke%2DKorsakoff%20syndrome,(Wernicke%2DKorsakoff%20syndrome) on 2024, March 22.

    [03]

    Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome on 2024, March 22.

    [04]

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.-d). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome on 2024, March 22.

    [05]

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.-d). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome on 2024, March 22.

    [06]

    Wiley, K. D. (2023, July 17). Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537204/ on 2024, March 22.

    [07]

    Sanvisens, A., Zuluaga, P., Fuster, D., Rivas, I., Tor, J., Marcos, M., Chamorro, A. J., & Muga, R. (2017). Long-Term Mortality of Patients with an Alcohol-Related Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Alcohol and alcoholism (Oxford, Oxfordshire), 52(4), 466–471. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agx013 on 2024, March 22.

    [08]

    Palm, A., Vataja, R., Talaslahti, T., Ginters, M., Kautiainen, H., Elonheimo, H., Suvisaari, J., Lindberg, N., & Koponen, H. (2022). Incidence and mortality of alcohol-related dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: A nationwide register study. International journal of geriatric psychiatry, 37(8), 10.1002/gps.5775. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.5775 on 2024, March 22.

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