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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 88,000 people die annually in the United States from issues related to alcohol abuse. One issue related to alcohol abuse that can cause medical issues or death is known as Wet Brain, otherwise known as alcohol-related dementia.

What is Wet Brain?

Wet Brain is a phrase that refers to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is the combination of two conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis syndrome.  Although these are separate conditions, they typically occur together and are caused by the same deficiencies. People with Wet Brain may suffer from memory problems or permanent brain damage. Typically, Wet Brain is seen in people suffering from alcohol addiction.

What Causes Wet Brain?

Wet Brain is caused by a deficiency of Thiamine, which negatively impacts the thalamus and hypothalamus in the brain. This means that a person does not have enough vitamin B12 in their system.  This deficiency can happen to people with alcohol use disorder or people that have food absorption problems. Absorption issues, also known as malabsorption, can also occur after a weight loss surgery or from some chronic illnesses.

Wet Brain refers to two different, but often co-occurring, symptoms. The symptoms of Wernicke tend to lead to the symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome. More specifically, Korsakoff appears as Wernicke’s symptoms subside.  This can all ultimately lead to permanent brain damage.  Untreated damage from Wernicke’s syndrome leads to the memory issues of Korsakoff’s syndrome. About 80-90% of people that develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy will also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis.

What does it feel like? What are the Symptoms?

Wet Brain symptoms occur as a result of the brain damage it could cause.

Wernicke symptoms may include:

  • Confusion
  • Ataxia (loss of muscle coordination)
    • This could cause leg tremors
  • Vision changes or problems
    • This may include nystagmus (abnormal eye movements), eyelid drooping, or double vision
  • Loss of mental activity
    • Long term, this may lead to coma or death.
  • Alcohol withdrawal

Korsakoff symptoms may include:

  • Severe memory loss
  • Inability to create new memories
  • Confabulation (making up stories)
  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there)

Wet Brain may also lead to nervous or muscular system damage.  Nerve system damage symptoms could include the following:

  • Decreased reflexes
  • Fast heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low body temperature
  • Muscle weakness
  • Atrophy (loss of tissue mass)
  • Walking and coordination difficulties

Wet Brain, over time, can result in long term complications. These include:

  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Injury due to falls associated with muscle weakness
  • Alcoholic neuropathy
  • Permanent memory loss
  • Permanent loss of problem-solving or thinking skills
  • Shortened life span

Treatment of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or Wet Brain, can help control or slow symptoms.  However, prevention is key. Stopping alcohol abuse can prevent or slow the potential brain and nerve damage.  Without treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff can be life-threatening.  If you have any questions about this syndrome, please seek the advice of a doctor.   Since alcohol abuse can lead to Wet Brain, seeking the help of a rehabilitation or addiction therapist can help someone regain control and lead a healthy, successful life.  Alcohol abuse can best be treated and overcome with the right support system and plan.