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Wet Brain Syndrome: Definition, Stages, and Symptoms


Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 2/01/2023

Wet brain is a brain disease that develops from frequent exposure to alcohol. The condition typically develops over years of frequent alcohol consumption and binge drinking. Wet brain is also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) and is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 in the brain. Alcohol contributes to the condition because it depletes the body’s vitamin B1 (thiamine) reserves. While wet brain is a serious condition that develops over time, it can be treated by a medical health professional and even reversed. Moreover, wet brain can be prevented by helping someone with alcohol addiction before damage is done.

What is a Wet Brain?

Wet brain syndrome (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome) is a brain disorder that develops in individuals who have a lack of vitamin B1 in the brain. Having a lack of vitamin B1 in the brain causes brain tissue to weaken. Wet brain also consists of more than one condition. The first condition, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, is a severe condition that impairs memory and motor function. The second condition, Wernicke’s Korsakoff’s psychosis, typically develops in individuals who continue to consume alcohol and leads to permanent symptoms or damage.

What are the Causes of Wet Brain?

Wet brain is caused by a deficiency in thiamine, which is common in people who abuse alcohol. Frequent alcohol consumption leads to a reduction in thiamine levels in the brain and reduces the body’s ability to effectively produce vitamin B1. In fact, 80% of people who suffer from heavy alcohol abuse suffer from thiamine deficiency. That said, based on recent data only 1-2% of people develop wet brain syndrome. Still, heavy drinking increases the risk of developing wet brain syndrome by about 15%.

What are the Stages of Wet Brain from Alcohol Addiction?

Wet brain occurs in two stages. These stages are Wernicke-Korsakoff encephalopathy and Wernicke-Korsakoff Psychosis. The condition begins with Wernicke-Korsakoff encephalopathy and progresses to Wernicke-Korsakoff psychosis.

1). Wernicke Encephalopathy

Wernicke encephalopathy is the first stage of wet brain. During this stage of the illness, patients suffer from confusion, ataxia, and other types of neurological decline. The condition is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) in the brain and requires medical treatment. If the vitamin deficiency is treated early, many of the symptoms can be reversed and the brain can heal. Wernicke encephalopathy is diagnosed by cognitive tests, blood tests, and medical history. People with the condition also suffer from tremors and a decline in vision.

2). Korsakoff Psychosis

Korsakoff psychosis is the second stage of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (wet brain). If the condition progresses to this stage it’s often fatal. While treatment can be provided, damage to the brain is permanent and leads to dementia and acute mental decline. The second stage of wet brain can be diagnosed by a medical professional and is treated in similar ways to Wernicke encephalopathy. That said, treatment is more intense and requires medications that treat cognitive decline along with vitamin B1 infusions.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Wet Brain?

There are many signs and symptoms of wet brain. The signs and symptoms of wet brain vary based on how advanced the condition is. For example, some people have dementia-like symptoms and others may only experience a decline in vision and a loss of fine motor functions.

Below are the signs and symptoms of wet brain.

  • Confusion
  • Loss of mental coordination
  • Vision changes
  • Dementia
  • Rapid cognitive decline
  • Leg tremors
  • Fevers
  • Eyelid drooping
  • Balance problems
  • Fatigue
  • Drowsiness

If Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome progresses to Korsakoff psychosis, the symptoms become worse. These symptoms are listed below.

  • Behavioral changes
  • Dementia
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Trouble walking

While symptoms from the first stage of wet brain can be reversed, damage caused by the second stage of wet brain is permanent.

How is Wet Brain Diagnosed?

There is no test designed to diagnose wet brain. That said, there are methods that doctors use to deduce that patients have wet brain. Doctors begin by evaluating a patient’s history with alcohol. This can be done by asking the patient questions or by testing blood alcohol levels (BAC). Doctors can also use mental tests to determine if a patient is experiencing cognitive decline. These tests are similar to the tests used for dementia and other brain-related illnesses. Doctors can also examine a patient’s walk, eye function, and response time.

Alcohol abuse is related to wet brain for a few reasons. First and foremost, frequent alcohol abuse over many years damages cells in the body and brain. Damage to these cells contributes to chronic conditions and nutritional deficiencies. That said, people who suffer from alcohol abuse disorder (AUD) are more likely to suffer from a vitamin B1 deficiency. A vitamin B1 deficiency is the biggest factor in wet brain, which is how alcohol abuse is related to wet brain.

How Common is Wet Brain Dementia from Alcohol Addiction?

Wet brain dementia caused by alcoholism is a rare condition. According to research by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, only 1-2% of the adult population suffers from wet brain. Therefore, the chances of developing wet brain are low. That said, men are a few percentage points more likely to develop wet brain than women because of their risk-taking tendencies towards alcohol consumption.

Do All Forms of Alcohol Cause Wet Brain?

There are many types of alcohol. The most common types of alcohol are beer, wine, liquor, and moonshine. While the level of alcohol in each beverage varies, all forms of alcohol can cause wet brain. All forms of alcohol contribute to wet brain because the body processes each type of alcohol the same. Therefore, it depends on how much alcohol someone is consuming over many years. Still, alcoholic beverages with higher alcohol percentages have a greater chance of causing wet brain.

Can One Night of Drinking Cause Brain Damage?

Alcohol can cause brain damage over many years but new research suggests that one night of drinking can also damage the brain. People who binge drink can incur permanent brain damage that limits their ability to focus, remember past events, and make good decisions. If someone consumes a large quantity of alcohol in one night permanent brain damage is possible. That said, it’s less likely to cause brain damage as severe as years of frequent alcohol consumption.

How Long Can You Live With Wet Brain?

People can live a long life with wet brain if the condition is treated in the first stage. In fact, some patients make a full recovery from symptoms and damage caused by the first stage or wet brain. That said, patients who have stage 2 wet brain incur permanent damage to the brain. Unfortunately, people with wet brain that’s in the second stage have a life expectancy of about 6 months to 1 year. Wet brain in the second stage is fatal because it has similar symptoms as dementia; it also progresses at a similar pace. Alcohol and death are linked in many ways because of how alcohol impacts the body.

How is Wet Brain Treated?

Wet brain can be treated. That said, treating wet brain is more effective if the condition is discovered early. The first stage of wet brain can be reversed with vitamin B1 injections. Once vitamin B1 levels return to normal in the brain, symptoms decline and patients can make a full recovery. Treatment for the first stage of wet brain needs to be completed by a medical professional and may or may not require hospitalization.

While the first stage of wet brain is reversible, if wet brain progresses to the second stage full recovery is not possible. Treating the second stage of wet brain is the same as treating the first stage and requires vitamin B1 injections. While some patients in the second stage of wet brain will have some symptoms reverse, there is typically permanent brain damage. For these reasons, it’s important to treat wet brain once the symptoms appear. Wet brain treatment also requires abstinence from alcohol to prevent more vitamin B1 deficiencies.

What are the Other Diseases Caused by Alcohol?

Alcohol causes many diseases when consumed frequently and in large quantities. When someone drinks a lot of alcohol for many years, cells in the body and brain begin to break down. As someone’s body becomes damaged by alcohol, chronic conditions begin to develop.

Some common alcohol-related diseases and disorders are listed below.

  • Liver failure
  • Liver damage
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Brain damage
  • Alcohol addiction and withdrawal
  • Ulcers
  • Throat, mouth, and colon cancers
  • Death
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cirrhosis
  • Heart disease

These are only a handful of diseases that are influenced by alcoholism. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, we recommend finding treatment as soon as possible.