What You Need to Know About Wet Brain Disease

By The Fix staff 03/18/19

Alcohol-related dementia as seen in wet brain disease can affect your life, even after you’ve stopped drinking.

Man with alcohol bottle passed out, with wet brain disease, alcohol-related demential

Alcohol abuse has many detrimental side effects. There’s the shame it can cause, and the stress it puts on relationships. Then, there are the physical side effects, which include liver disease and cardiovascular disease. However, the effects of alcoholism on brain health are often overlooked.

There is a strong connection between alcoholism and brain health. One of the most damaging brain conditions associated with alcohol abuse is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, also known as wet brain disease or alcohol-related dementia. The condition can come on fairly suddenly and change a person’s life, but some of the symptoms can be reversed with treatment. Getting into treatment or getting alcohol detox at home is an important step for treating wet brain disease.

Anyone with a history of problem drinking should know the following about wet brain disease.

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is actually two separate disorders: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff's syndrome. However, they are closely related, and someone who develops Wernicke encephalopathy has about an 80 percent chance or greater of developing Korsakoff syndrome. Although there is ongoing debate in the scientific community on this topic, it seems that Wernicke encephalopathy almost always comes before a diagnosis of Korsakoff's syndrome.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome occurs in about 1 to 2 percent of the population in the United States, but it’s more common in alcoholics (it can also be linked to malnutrition). That’s because the condition is associated with low levels of vitamin B1, also called thiamine. Alcohol affects vitamin B1 in a few negative ways: it reduces stores in the liver and makes the body less effective at absorbing B1 and converting it into a state that the body can use. It is therefore important for patients who are still drinking to stop when they start having symptoms of wet brain disease.

What are the symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

Wet brain disease symptoms are similar to the symptoms of memory loss, which is why Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is sometimes called alcohol-related dementia. The symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome unfold in a predictable way, which helps doctors diagnose the condition.

First, during the acute phase of the disease, people often begin experiencing the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy. During the acute phase, symptoms appear over the course of a few weeks. The symptoms include:

  • Cognitive changes. This is the primary symptom of Wernicke encephalopathy. People often feel confused or disoriented, and in some severe cases might become delirious. Other mental changes can include feeling tired or being unable to pay attention.
  • Changes to movement. This is known as ataxia and presents as changes to the way a person walks. People with Wernicke encephalopathy might walk in an unsteady manner, or, during the worst part of the disease, they might be unable to walk independently at all.
  • Changes to eyesight. People with Wernicke encephalopathy might experience involuntary eye movements and their eye muscles might become paralyzed. Double vision is another common symptom.

Often when the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy begin to lessen, a person will start to experience symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome, which is characterized by short-term memory loss and the inability to make new short-term memories.

How is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome diagnosed and treated?

People who are showing symptoms of wet brain disease need to undergo careful evaluation to rule out other conditions. Many have their B1 levels tested. Brain scans are often ordered, which can show physical changes that indicate the condition.

People with wet brain disease are treated first with an infusion of B1, which often helps their symptoms quickly. In addition, those with the condition need to make lifestyle changes, which include alcohol detox and adopting a healthy diet.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke points out that, in some cases, the memory changes caused by Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be long lasting or even permanent. For this reason, many with the condition need to make accommodations to suit their lifestyle, which may be diminished by their memory loss.

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