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What is a “Wet Brain”?

April 10, 2013 by  
Filed under Addiction, Alcohol, Alcohol Facts, hiamine, Wet Brain

Wet Brain

What is a “Wet Brain”?

“Wet Brain” is another name for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It is a condition caused by lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) often secondary to alcohol abuse. It causes a loss of specific brain functions because B1 is an essential vitamin involved in helping the body make energy from carbohydrates. It also helps the heart, nervous system, and muscles to function properly.

Wet Brain: How is it caused?

Wet brain is usually found in malnourished chronic alcoholics, though it can be found in other people who are malnourished for other reasons (e.g. people who have had gastric stapling). Alcohol interferes with the absorption of thiamine and the conversion of thiamine into the active form of the vitamin (thiamine pyrophosphate). In addition, many heavy drinkers have poor eating habits and their diet does not contain essential vitamins.  The symptoms of wet brain may sometimes improve with therapy but it is often permanent and irreversible.

Wet Brain: Wernicke’s Encephalopathy Symptoms

Wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is actually a combination of two separate conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.

There are four main symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, but they do not always occur. To diagnose Wernike’s encephalopathy in a heavy drinking, a person must have at least two of the following four groups of symptoms:

  • Evidence of malnutrition (e.g. the person is very underweight).
  • Involuntary, jerky eye movements or paralysis of the muscles that move the eyes.
  • Poor balance or unsteadiness, or other signs of damage to the cerebellum.
  • Disorientation, confusion, or mild memory loss.

If Wernicke’s is suspected, immediate treatment is very important. This usually involves the person being given high doses of thiamine intravenously. If treatment is carried out in time, many of the symptoms can be reversed. If it is not treated or is not treated adequately or in time, permanent brain damage can result. In some cases, wet brain can be fatal.

Wet Brain: Korsakoff’s Psychosis

If Wernicke’s encephalopathy is not treated, or not treated soon enough, Korsakoff’s syndrome follows in many cases. It is likely to develop gradually.

The main symptom of Korsakoff’s is memory loss. This is particularly true for events that occur after the onset of the condition. In some cases, memories of the distant past can also be negatively affected.  Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty in acquiring new information or learning new skills
  • Change in personality: This can be shown in either extreme apathy or talkative, repetitive behavior
  • Lack of awareness of condition-even people with extreme memory damage may think that their memory is functioning normally.
  • Confabulation-this is where a person invents stories to fill in the gaps in memory. It is more common in early stages of the illness

Wet Brain: Who is affected?

Wet brain is diagnosed in about one in eight people with alcoholism.  People affected tend to be men between the age of 45 and 65 with a history of chronic alcohol abuse. Women can be affected, but they tend to develop wet brain at a younger age then men.



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