Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, more commonly known as “wet brain,” is a form of brain damage resulting from chronic alcoholism. Though labeled together as a compound syndrome, Wernicke-Korsakoff is actually two co-related but distinct syndromes: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which affects the thalamus and the hypothalamus regions of the brain, causes central nervous system lesions and results in neurological impairment. Common signs of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are confusion, memory loss, poor muscle coordination, unsteady gait, abnormal eye movements, and double vision. In extreme cases, Wernicke’s syndrome may cause coma or death.
Korsakoff’s psychosis typically sets in after the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy subside. The brain’s ability to form new memories is damaged, and profound and lasting memory loss results. Visual and auditory hallucinations are common. Nearly 90 percent of alcoholics who survive Wernicke’s encephalopathy will go on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis.
Wet brain is specifically caused by a deficiency in thiamine, or vitamin B1. Thiamine is not produced by the body, but can only be acquired through diet. Since alcoholics frequently suffer from poor nutrition, thiamine deficiency is a common occurrence. Alcohol also inhibits the body’s absorption of thiamine and reduces stores of the vitamin in the liver. In addition, chronic alcoholism suppresses the liver enzyme that activates stored thiamine into the body.
In developed countries, thiamine deficiency is extremely rare, except in cases of chronic alcoholism or conditions such as HIV/AIDS. Therefore, a medical diagnosis of thiamine deficiency, coupled with cognitive impairment or memory loss, nearly always points to the presence of wet brain.
Wet brain is treated with intravenous or intramuscular injections of thiamine. These thiamine supplements will improve many of the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, including confusion, delirium, and poor muscle coordination. However, memory loss and cognitive impairment associated with wet brain may be irreversible. Even with treatment, a shortened lifespan may result.
If you suspect that you or someone you love is suffering from alcoholic wet brain, seek help immediately. Though Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is incurable, it can be arrested with treatment. With medical intervention, many symptoms of wet brain can be alleviated, as well. It’s not too late to seek help.
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