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Wet Brain: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

According to the CDC, 25.1% of individuals aged 18 or older reported engaging in heavy drinking at least once in the past year.[1] While occasional alcohol consumption does not indicate an addiction, many people partake in problematic drinking habits. Over time, occasional heavy drinking can turn into frequent alcohol abuse, leading to the development of an addiction.

Alcohol use disorder can lead to various serious health effects, such as cirrhosis, pancreatitis, liver disease, and cardiovascular disease. However, there are long-term effects of alcoholism that are less talked about. One of these health concerns is known as “wet brain.”

While the wet brain is less common than the other health effects associated with long-term alcohol abuse, it can still occur. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, wet brain occurs in 1-2% of the population.[2] While this brain disease is not common, being aware of the signs and symptoms is important when you suffer from alcoholism.

What is Wet Brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome)?

Wet brain is actually a term that is used for two separate conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. While these are two different disorders, Wernicke’s encephalopathy often turns into Korsakoff’s psychosis if it’s left untreated. Once you have developed both conditions, it is referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome or WKS.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a type of dementia that is caused by a thiamine deficiency. While every tissue in your body needs thiamine to function properly, it does not occur naturally. This means that you have to consume foods that contain thiamine, like pork, beef, kale, or eggs.

It is possible to develop a thiamine deficiency by having a poor diet, however, the most common cause is heavy and long-term alcohol abuse. Drinking alcohol excessively can cause your body to become unable to properly store thiamine, leading to a serious deficiency. Over time, this is what causes Wernicke’s encephalopathy to develop.

The Stages of Wet Brain

Wet brain occurs in two stages, with the first being Wernicke’s encephalopathy. If you do not receive treatment in the early stages of this condition, you will develop Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Both stages of the wet brain are different and cause various symptoms. Being aware of the symptoms associated with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can motivate you to stop drinking before it’s too late.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

The term “encephalopathy” describes a disease in which the functioning of the brain is affected by a condition. In Wernicke’s encephalopathy, the functioning of your brain is affected by a severe lack of thiamine.

The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:

  • Twitching
  • Confusion
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Poor reflexes
  • Uncontrollable or unusual eye movements
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Loss of balance
  • Blurred vision
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Increased heart rate
  • Weakness and muscle atrophy
  • Low body temperature
  • Mental processing issues
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Reduce body mass index
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting or consistent nausea
  • Anemia
  • Malnutrition

If left untreated, you will develop the irreversible stage of wet brain syndrome: Korsakoff’s psychosis. According to the National Organization for Rare Diseases, “Approximately 80-90 percent of individuals with Wernicke syndrome develop Korsakoff syndrome.”[2]

Korsakoff’s Psychosis

Korsakoff’s psychosis develops after Wernicke’s encephalopathy has been left untreated. This is a late complication of wet brain syndrome that causes memory deficits, confusion, and behavioral changes. There is no cure for this stage of the wet brain, however, there are ways to manage the symptoms and see some improvement with the help of medical professionals.

The symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis include:

  • Short-term memory problems
  • Creation of false memories
  • Hallucinations
  • Anger and frustration
  • Personality changes
  • Increased talkativeness
  • Tremors
  • Coma
  • Vision problems

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Korsakoff’s syndrome damages nerve cells and supporting cells in the brain and spinal cord, as well as the part of the brain involved with memory.”[3] This is why people with this condition have problems remembering things and even create new, false memories.

How is Wet Brain Treated?

While WKS is not curable once you develop the second stage of the condition, early detection can help treat symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. The long-term effects of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome range from difficulties in personal interactions and injuries due to loss of coordination to coma or even death. Because of the serious consequences of WKS, receiving professional treatment is of the utmost importance.

The first step in treating a wet brain is to attend a medical detox program for alcoholism. You will not recover from the symptoms of this condition if you are still drinking. While you are at the medical detox facility, doctors will diagnose you with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome if you meet the criteria. From there, they will begin administering thiamine infusions to solve your deficiency.

Thiamine infusions will soothe symptoms of confusion, delirium, vision issues, and muscle coordination problems. However, it will not improve intellect or memory. The brain damage caused by wet brain syndrome can only be minimized, not reversed.

Finding Help for Long-Term Alcoholism

If you or a loved one have been suffering from alcoholism for a long time, help is available. Alcoholism can feel like an impossible battle to defeat, however, an alcohol rehab center can provide you with the tools and support you need to regain control.

Contact Carolina Center for Recovery today to learn more about our top-rated alcohol addiction treatment program.