According to information published by Medical News Today, around 1-2 percent of the general population suffers from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), commonly referred to as wet brain. WKS is actually two separate disorders: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome. Generally speaking Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is typically caused by a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, is the acute phase of WKS and almost always precedes the potentially debilitating chronic and lasting Korsakoff syndrome.
WKS is a form of brain damage that occurs when vitamin B1 levels get too low, which may occur if food is not digested properly, as a result of malnutrition, due to anorexia, after a weight-loss surgery, or when someone suffers from chronic illness or infection, cancer, or AIDS. There may also be genetic vulnerabilities that can make it more likely for a person to suffer from WKS. The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) publishes that within the United States the most common cause of WKS is alcoholism. Between 12 and 14 percent of heavy drinkers develop wet brain, Medical News Today reports.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a severe, and potentially life-threatening, reaction in the brain to insufficient levels of thiamine. Alcohol depletes the body of this essential vitamin, which can lead to the onset of the disorder and cause damage to the brain. Wernicke’s encephalopathy may often go undiagnosed, and if untreated, it can be fatal as much as 20 percent of the time, the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism publishes. Of the survivors, 85 percent will go on to develop Korsakoff syndrome, of which a quarter will require institutionalization. Wernicke’s encephalopathy should be considered a medical emergency.
A chronic and significant memory disorder, Korsakoff syndrome can cause severe memory issues. While it most often follows Wernicke’s encephalopathy and is generally the result of chronic and perpetuated alcohol abuse, the Alzheimer’s Association publishes that Korsakoff syndrome can occur on its own in some cases.
Korsakoff syndrome results in long-term memory gaps, an inability to form new memories, and difficulties learning new things. People suffering from the disorder may make up information or stories to fill their memory gaps, which is known as confabulation and is not intentional. The memory issues can be significant enough to impair daily life in some respects, but they leave other areas and social skills virtually untouched. Repetitive behaviors, apathy, personality changes, talkativeness, and severe short-term memory problems are possible side effects of Korsakoff syndrome.
Some of the memory and learning issues may improve with treatment and time; however, Medical News Today warns that about 25 percent of the problems are irreversible. Individuals who suffer from Korsakoff syndrome may need help managing daily tasks and be unable to live on their own.
Treating Wet Brain
Since wet brain, or WKS, is so often the result of alcohol misuse and addiction, the first stage of treatment is often to stop consuming alcohol and allow it to safely process out of the body. This is best accomplished through a medical detox program, as alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and even fatal without proper treatment. Heavy drinkers should never stop drinking “cold turkey” without professional help.
If Wernicke’s encephalopathy is caught early enough, it may be possible to prevent the onset of Korsakoff syndrome. Thiamine levels need to be brought back up to normal through oral supplements or injectable thiamine. In addition to thiamine, other vitamins, magnesium, fluids, and a nutritious and balanced diet can also help to address symptoms of wet brain.
It is essential to remain abstinent from alcohol to keep thiamine levels normal and prevent further brain damage. After a detox protocol helps a person become physically stable without alcohol, an addiction treatment program can provide the tools to minimize relapse and sustain recovery. Therapy, counseling, and support groups can teach individuals healthy coping and stress management skills that are imperative to recovery. Behavioral therapies help individuals to better understand why they drink and what they can do going forward to deal with issues in healthier ways.
Symptoms of wet brain can be managed and may slowly improve with long-term sobriety, proper nutrition, and continued care. Korsakoff syndrome may be avoided altogether with preventative measures and quick treatment once Wernicke’s encephalopathy is diagnosed. Once Korsakoff syndrome sets in, however, ongoing medical and mental health support is vital to manage the symptoms and treat the disorder on a long-term basis.