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What is Wet-Brain Syndrome?

Wet-brain, also known as Korsakoff Syndrome is chronic amnesia most often caused by excessive long-term consumption of alcohol. Simply put, it is an alcohol brain damage syndrome, which occurs when the brain is deprived of vitamin B1 (thiamine).

Most doctors recommend that an adult male needs 1.2 mg a day, and a woman 1.1 mg.

It is estimated that whilst a reasonably healthy adult ingests between 0.88mg and 1.99mg a day, an alcoholic only takes in less than 0.3mg a day.

As you can see, there is a vast gulf between the recommended daily dose and the reality of an alcoholic’s intake.

This is partly due to alcoholics not eating and replacing the calories from food with alcohol. The other leading cause is partly due to the alcohol inhibiting the liver’s ability to absorb thiamine.

With dangerously low levels of thiamine being ingested by the ‘average’ alcoholic, alcohol brain damage syndrome can be one of the most damaging consequences of alcoholism.

There are other wet-brain causes, including excessive vomiting either during pregnancy (hyperemesis gravidarum) or as the result of bulimia, or a reaction to a gastric band. Wet-brain can also occur when a person’s diet does not give them the right nutrients.

However, we’re going to focus on wet-brain caused by alcohol misuse.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Symptoms

But what is wet-brain? How do you recognise the signs and symptoms?

Wet-brain is actually a combination of two conditions, Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s Syndrome. Wernicke is a combination of motor and sensory disturbances, whilst Korsakoff syndrome is characterised by dementia or disordered memory function.

Not everybody with wet-brain will develop all of the symptoms in the same order, so whilst one person may develop Wernicke encephalopathy initially and then progress to Korsakoff’s, another may only develop Korsakoff’s syndrome first, or they both develop together.

Early stages of wet-brain include:

  • Rapid weight loss/reduced BMI
  • Unsteady walk (known as wet-brain gait)
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Anaemia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Gaps in memory
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Impaired/abnormal eye movement

If no wet-brain treatment is administered, the disorder progresses, and symptoms become much more serious. These latter-stages symptoms include:

  • Dementia
  • Extreme confusion
  • Loss of muscle coordination (Ataxia)
  • Inability to create new memories
  • Creating new false memories to fill in the gaps (confabulation)
  • Apathy or other personality changes
  • Increased talkativeness – talking a lot, repeating the same things over and over, and trying to make conversation

Wet-Brain Treatment & Diagnosis

The good news is that wet-brain treatment is pretty straightforward if it is diagnosed in the early stages. In most cases, the symptoms can be reversed if the sufferer is administered high doses of thiamine in a timely fashion.

If, however, the disorder has progressed, and Korsakoff’s Syndrome is a factor, some of the damage may be irreversible.

Unchecked, wet-brain can result in nerve damage, a rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) low blood pressure (postural hypotension) loss of consciousness, and eventually, death.

Intervention and treatment are therefore crucial, particularly when alcohol is the cause.

Even if some of the memory loss and other symptoms prove irreversible, the best way to delay the progression of the disease and prevent further damage is to undergo detox and to begin a life of sobriety if the damage has been caused by the excessive consumption of alcohol.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be diagnosed either due to doctors recognising the tell-tale symptoms as listed above which are clearly evident or detected on a brain scan. The scan is performed in a medical facility and is the best way to determine if there is visible swelling of the brain.

Undergoing a detox from alcohol, either in a rehab centre, in a hospital or medically supervised at home isn’t just a process of ridding the body of alcohol. It also involves replacing the nutrients that have been lost during the sustained period of alcohol consumption. To counter this, thiamine is usually administered immediately to the patients as part of their alcohol detox.

Thiamine can be ingested either orally or through an intravenous drip, depending on how the patient can best tolerate it.

Port of Call can help you to safely detox in a specifically-designed area, with medically-trained staff on hand to help you through it. We’re also there for aftercare, advice, and full emotional support as you go through the process of ridding toxins from your mind and body.

Wet-Brain Prognosis

There are a couple of wet-brain stages, and prognosis very much depends on which stage the suffer is in.

Due to the nature of the condition, it is possible for sufferers to be unaware of their symptoms, particularly in the early stages.

In the early stages, particularly if only Wernicke syndrome is in evident, the patient can make a complete recovery, reversing the symptoms and repairing the damage.

Not every symptom will improve immediately, however.

Vision and ocular problems should reverse themselves quickly, whilst the muscle and movement symptoms may take longer and only show small, gradual improvements.

Once wet-brain has reached the acute stage, the mortality rate is estimated to be as high as 17 per cent. It is, therefore, imperative that you receive treatment as early as possible.

For anyone who has been through alcohol rehab, even if you no longer drink, it is a good idea to get your thiamine levels checked, as you may still be deficient. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can take years (more than a decade) to develop, so you could still be at risk long after you have recovered from your alcohol addiction or misuse.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction or misuse, please get in touch with Port of Call for a confidential discussion about your treatment options.

About the author: Martin Preston

Martin is our Founder and Chief Executive. Martin is himself in long term recovery and started Port of Call to help families navigate treatment options. In 2020 Martin will open Delamere Health Ltd, the UK’s first purpose built addiction treatment clinic.

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