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What is Alcoholic ‘Wet Brain’?

Alcoholism is one of the most dangerous forms of substance abuse for many reasons, one of which is the possibility of contracting alcoholic “wet brain,” or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is a common occurrence among chronic alcohol abusers and has destructive effects. Although the condition is incurable, it is possible to treat it and prevent progression with early intervention. Knowing how to identify alcoholic wet brain syndrome symptoms is the first step. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome does not appear gradually. This condition has a rapid onset and symptoms worsen very quickly without prompt treatment.

Harmony Place is an affordable luxury rehabilitation experience, and we want people looking for more information about the dangers of alcoholism to know of the treatments and services we provide. The various therapies available at Harmony Place include nutritional therapy, massage, acupuncture, and a variety of inpatient and outpatient treatment options. It’s vital for people struggling with alcoholism to understand the possible impact of contracting Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and to know what to expect from treatment.

Understanding Alcoholic Wet Brain

Alcoholic wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff is a form of brain damage resulting from chronic alcoholism that actually encompasses two distinct correlated medical conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Alcoholism causes a host of catastrophic and debilitating effects, and this condition is one of the most severe.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy 

One part of alcoholic wet brain syndrome is Wernicke’s encephalopathy, a condition affecting the thalamus and hypothalamus in the lower region of the brain. The condition results in lesions in the central nervous system and can lead to several possible types of neurological impairment. Wernicke’s encephalopathy has a 10% to 20% mortality rate, and roughly 90% of individuals struggling with alcoholism who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy will later develop Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Korsakoff’s Psychosis 

The final stages of alcoholic wet brain syndrome often include Korsakoff’s psychosis. This part of the condition typically appears after the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy abate. Korsakoff’s psychosis damages the brain’s ability to form new memories, and the victim often experiences visual and auditory hallucinations, unpredictable mood swings, disorientation, and difficulty absorbing new information.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome 

Substance abuse professionals identify alcoholic wet brain by the appearance of symptoms of either Wernicke’s encephalopathy or Korsakoff’s psychosis. Depending on the time of diagnosis, a patient may experience one or the other. The effects of Wernicke’s encephalopathy invariably lead to Korsakoff’s psychosis, and treatment of the latter often hinges on the timing of diagnosing the former. Some of the most common symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include memory loss, confusion, abnormal eye movements, double vision, loss of balance, and poor muscle function. Severe cases of this condition can include tachycardia (rapid heart rate), muscle atrophy, lowered body temperature, and can also lead to coma or even death.

If a patient has advanced to Korsakoff’s psychosis, he or she will often attempt to fill in memory gaps with fictional stories, or begin displaying other signs of memory loss and psychological anguish. Memory loss is an extremely distressful experience, and individuals who experience significant memory loss may begin to doubt their identities and lose touch with reality. Hallucinations are common among individuals struggling with this condition, and these hallucinations can be dangerous. A person who feels disconnected from reality or who cannot remember crucial details about his or her life may lash out unexpectedly or act in very uncharacteristic ways. Korsakoff’s psychosis requires immediate and comprehensive medical intervention.

Diagnosing Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome 

There is no distinct testing method for diagnosing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Instead, doctors will perform a thorough medical examination and analyze a patient’s symptoms to determine the presence of neurological damage. Early tests typically include an eye exam to analyze a patient’s eye movements and pupil alignment, and a physical test to study the patient’s gait, reflexes, and muscle coordination.

A nutritional screening is another important step in diagnosing wet brain from alcoholic symptoms. Many people struggling with substance abuse eventually become malnourished due to self-neglect, and vitamin deficiency plays a large role in the formation of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Thiamine and Alcohol Abuse

Thiamine, or vitamin B1, is essential to healthy bodily function and deficiency of this nutrient in those struggling with alcoholism is a serious issue. The body does not naturally produce thiamine, and most of the average person’s thiamine comes from food intake. Since chronic alcoholics are often malnourished, this can lead to deficient levels of thiamine and other important vitamins.

Why Give Thiamine To People Struggling with Chronic Alcoholism?

Nutritional therapy is a crucial staple of substance abuse treatment. Most people struggling with addiction eventually neglect things such as proper diet and hydration, and eventually these issues lead to dangerous vitamin deficiencies. Substance abuse treatment centers often administer thiamine doses to patients struggling with chronic alcoholism to help reestablish equilibrium in their diets. This can include doses of vitamin replacements or diets rich in thiamine and other essential nutrients. Patients in the early stages of treatment may receive thiamine intravenously until they are able to receive glucose. Without the first stage of vitamin replacement, glucose can actually cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome to worsen.

Thiamine’s Role In The Human Body 

Thiamine and alcohol interact in potentially dangerous ways. The human body stores thiamine in the liver and this presents additional problems for those with chronic alcoholism. Alcohol causes stress in the liver as it works to metabolize the alcohol safely, and over time, chronic alcoholism degrades the liver and renders it susceptible to a host of medical complications, such as cirrhosis and other diseases. This damage also prevents the liver from properly storing thiamine and releasing it into the rest of the body.

Every tissue in the human body requires thiamine, and doctors who screen for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome often look at things like a patient’s gait and muscle mass to determine thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is responsible for the formation of muscle tissue, so individuals suffering from alcoholic wet brain often have decreased muscle mass and experience muscle weakness. Doctors will also look for the presence of tachycardia, or rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, and low body temperature as symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Prognosis For Alcoholic Wet Brain Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is unfortunately irreversible. With early intervention and thorough treatment, substance abuse physicians can halt the progression of the condition and prevent further damage. People who suffer from this condition often develop permanent alcoholic neuropathy, a condition that typically entails poor muscle function and coordination, difficulty with social interactions, and impaired thinking and judgment.

A person who suffered from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may experience psychological distress due to damaged or lost memory and have difficulty acclimating back into to normal life. Alcoholic wet brain results in permanent brain damage, so it is not uncommon for these individuals to experience significant difficulty in reintegrating into society. This damage can strain family ties and friendships and make it impossible for the individual to return to his or her previous occupation.

Dangers of Dual Diagnosis

Substance abuse professionals define “dual diagnosis” cases as individuals suffering from both mental health disorders and substance abuse disorders at the same time. The alcoholic wet brain is a mental disorder caused by substance abuse, so this condition technically fits the definition of a dual diagnosis. Prolonged alcoholism also can worsen an existing case of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and cause the individual to spiral into a dangerous cycle of addiction.

Loss of memory and motor function can lead to distress, and an individual who has sought rehabilitation for his or her substance abuse may continue to consume alcohol to stave off the symptoms of the alcoholic wet brain syndrome, worsening the condition in the process. Treating dual-diagnosis cases requires treatment for both the mental health condition and the substance abuse at the same time. For people suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, this typically involves emergency intervention to stabilize the patient and then restorative therapies and rehabilitation to help curb the substance abuse.

Treating Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome 

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is incurable, but people struggling with the condition still require medical attention and rehabilitation to prevent further damage. It is possible to stop the progression of this condition with early intervention and treatment, and this involves the full range of the rehabilitation cycle.

Alcohol Detox

Any type of substance abuse treatment begins with the detoxification process. Most people struggling with addiction are terrified of the thought of detox because of the inevitable appearance of withdrawal symptoms it causes. However, medically assisted detox is invaluable to the substance abuse treatment process, and this helps people suffering from alcoholic wet brain, as well.

During detox, physicians providing treatment will help the patient flush the last of the alcohol from his or her system while administering medications and nutritional replacements. During this time, a patient suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome will receive intravenous thiamine doses to restore healthy thiamine levels throughout the body. Detox often entails addressing withdrawal symptoms, and substance abuse physicians can help patients manage these symptoms with medications until they are ready for counseling.

Rehab And Long-Term Treatment

After completing detox, an individual struggling with chronic alcoholism will still require treatment. Alcohol counseling can take many forms, and substance abuse treatment centers typically develop individualized treatment plans to address a specific patient’s problems. Harmony Place understands the difficulties inherent in treating dual diagnosis cases including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, and alcohol counseling for these individuals often involves various types of therapies.

Group counseling is a great method for people struggling with addiction to find common ground with other people in similar situations. Solo counseling, or one-on-one sessions with a rehabilitation specialist, are also invaluable and help patients work on individual issues in a more intimate clinical setting. Physical and holistic therapies such as acupuncture, massage, meditation, and other treatments can help a patient overcome the physical strains of rehabilitation.

Specific Treatments For Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

After identifying Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, substance abuse physicians will typically begin a patient’s treatment by administering thiamine replacement and nutritional therapy. Some patients may also require medications to manage the symptoms of an alcoholic wet brain, such as rapid eye twitching and loss of muscle coordination. Thiamine supplements help restore healthy levels of thiamine in the body while curbing symptoms like delirium and confusion.

While thiamine supplements can help some symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and improve muscle coordination and eye movement, any damage to the brain can be permanent. This can lead to significant intellectual impairment and memory loss, and patients who experience these conditions will require extensive medical intervention.

Long-Term Care 

Overcoming addiction entails much more than simply reaching sobriety; it requires maintaining it for the rest of one’s life. Individuals who suffer from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome face a tougher road after rehabilitation and often require extensive psychotherapy, especially in cases involving significant memory loss.

Doctors who treat patients with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome often prescribe medications to manage minor symptoms like eye twitching and muscle dysfunction, but long-term counseling may be necessary to help these individuals rebuild their social skills and cognitive functions. Unfortunately, not every patient who suffers from the alcoholic wet brain will improve. The best way to treat Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is through preventative care and abstinence from excessive alcohol consumption.

Finding The Right Treatment Center For Alcoholic Wet Brain

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is incurable, but it is manageable in some cases with early detection and treatment. Harmony Place offers a full range of substance abuse recovery services, and we want potential patients to understand what we have to offer in our affordable luxury facilities.

Time is a crucial factor in treating any type of substance abuse. The longer an addiction continues, the more extensive the resulting damage will be. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a perfect example because, without early detection and medical intervention, it can be extremely debilitating or even fatal. If you or a loved one experience any of the early symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, it is crucial to seek treatment before the condition progresses. A full regimen of medically assisted detoxification, alcoholic counseling, and addiction treatment is essential for anyone who suffers from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

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