The scientific name for “wet brain” is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), also known by other names, such as Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE), Korsakoff’s psychosis and Beriberi. The syndrome is named after two doctors, Carl Wernicke and Sergei Korsakoff, who worked independently of each other to diagnose the condition.
It is a form of dementia that is caused by brain damage due to the deficiency of the vitamin B1, or thiamine, which is essential for health. It occurs in the advanced stages of alcoholism. People addicted to alcohol especially tend to suffer from this problem due to the development of poor diet overtime and reduction in the body’s ability to absorb thiamine due to alcohol that can obstruct the brain from functioning normally.
Although nonalcoholics can also develop the deficiency of thiamine that causes WKS, however, it is termed “alcoholic wet brain” because this disease generally tends to develop among people with a prolonged history of alcoholism. Long-term alcoholics are prone to developing WKS or wet brain because alcohol is converted into glucose in the body, which increases the likelihood of developing this problem.
Stages of WKS
The two doctors, Carl Wernicke and Sergei Korsakoff who worked independent of one another, diagnosed two distinct stages of this condition in the late 1800s and as a result the two stages are named as Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis.
On the one hand, Wernicke encephalopathy is the first stage where there is a chance of recovery when treatment is given immediately and effectively. Korsakoff psychosis, on the other hand, is a fatal condition wherein the symptoms become irreversible and parts of the brain often begin to die.
Some vital facts about alcoholic wet brain are as follows:
- Wet brain can be prevented by limiting the intake of alcohol or abstaining from it altogether, while maintaining a nutritional diet that includes a regular intake of vitamin B1. Diet rich in thiamine are whole grains, brown rice, asparagus, kale, pork, beef, chicken, eggs and potatoes.
- Failure to diagnose the second stage (Korsakoff psychosis) leads to death in 20 percent of the cases, while brain damage occurs in 75 percent of cases.
- A severe deficiency of thiamine can cause wet brain even in the absence of chronic alcoholism. Deficiency can occur in malnourished individuals after periods of vomiting from “morning sickness” or bulimia. Even a diet consisting solely of polished white rice can lead to thiamine deficiency.
- If detected early, during the Wernicke’s encephalopathy phase, thiamine injections can sometimes reverse the damage and allow patients a full recovery. However, after the second stage (Korsakoff psychosis), the injury to the brain is not reversible.
- The second stage has a sudden onset and can be brought on by a large dose of glucose in someone with a vitamin B1 deficiency. It is hazardous for malnourished alcoholics to consume too much sweets and foods that contain no vitamins. This condition has also been unwittingly caused by physicians administering a glucose drip to the undernourished alcoholics in their care.
- WKS is generally treated through thiamine and abstinence from alcohol. Over time there can be some improvements, but total recovery is very unlikely. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) lists WKS as a rare disease due to the fact that it affects less than 200,000 in the United States.
Path to recovery
The common symptoms of this disease are severe memory loss, inability to form new memories, loss of memory of events that never occurred, confabulation, drowsiness and a paralysis of eye movements, confusion, ataxia – a staggering or irregular gait, and auditory and visual hallucinations. The injury to the brain could prove fatal once an alcoholic reaches the second stage (Korsakoff psychosis).
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