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Chronic alcohol abuse has the potential to cause severe and sometimes fatal health conditions, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (a.k.a. “wet brain” syndrome). According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “Wernicke-Korsakoff (WK) syndrome is a serious brain condition that is usually, but not exclusively, associated with chronic alcohol misuse.” The Redpoint Center uses evidence-based methods to treat alcohol use disorder (AUD) and co-occurring conditions. The clinical team helps clients determine if they have any vitamin deficiencies and provides them with the resources to address those health issues.

What Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by a severe thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. According to the previously mentioned article by NIAAA, “WK syndrome involves two different brain disorders that often occur together: Wernicke’s disease and Korsakoff’s psychosis.” Both diseases are degenerate brain disorders affecting a person’s ability to form new memories and access old memories.

Alcohol misuse is not the cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, chronic alcohol abuse contributes to the dietary deficiencies that cause wet brain. Malnourishment or a lack of proper nutrition is a common side effect of AUD and leads to a lack of thiamine. Even a short period without thiamine can cause the brain’s physical structure to begin to break down. Lack of thiamine also directly impacts cardiovascular health and the central nervous system.

The symptoms and side effects of wet brain are often attributed to other disorders, and misdiagnosis is common. According to the Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders, “It is estimated that merely 20% of cases are diagnosed properly, whereas the majority are misdiagnosed.” The Redpoint Center uses comprehensive assessments and screening tools to determine if clients have any conditions caused by malnutrition or other causes. The care team ensures clients are diagnosed accurately and treated with the most appropriate services. Clinicians may provide referrals to higher levels of care in instances where potential clients have late-stage wet brain.

Who Is at Risk of Developing Wet Brain?

Anyone can develop wet brain. However, some people have a higher risk than others.

Some of the risk factors for developing WK include:

  • Alcohol misuse
  • Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
  • Some forms of cancer
  • Unhealthy diets or eating disorders
  • Conditions affecting the body’s ability to absorb nutrients
  • Other conditions contributing to poor nutrition
  • Excessive and prolonged vomiting
  • Chemotherapy

Later stages of the disorder are untreatable and lead to death. Individuals who have multiple conditions putting them at risk for wet brain should seek medical support to address any nutritional deficiencies before symptoms appear. Early intervention and treatment reduce the likelihood of a person reaching a critical stage of the condition.

What Are the Stages of Wet Brain?

Wet brain has two unique stages: Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s Psychosis. Below are brief descriptions of each.

#1. Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), “Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a degenerative brain disorder caused by the lack of vitamin B1.” The symptoms include:

  • Vision problems
  • Confusion
  • Ataxia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Hypothermia
  • Coma

If left untreated, Wernicke’s Encephalopathy may lead to the second stage of wet brain, Korsakoff’s Psychosis.

#2. Korsakoff’s Psychosis

The second stage of the condition may be fatal and involves multiple severe symptoms, including:

  • Delirium
  • Hallucinations
  • Confabulations
  • Extreme memory loss
  • Inability to retain new memories
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Physical exhaustion

Individuals who have reached this stage may be unable to care for themselves. A large percentage of individuals with this disorder die. However, early treatment may offset the side effects and help clients heal.

What Are the Potential Side Effects of Wet Brain?

The primary side effects of wet brain include:

  • Memory and communication issues
  • Difficulty maintaining basic tasks of daily living
  • Decreased quality of life
  • Increased risk of coma, severe injury, or death

The symptoms of WK, even in the early stages, significantly affect a person’s ability to function and care for themselves. Early medical and mental health treatment is the best way to reduce or avoid the worst side effects.

Warning Signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Most people with wet brain are unaware of their condition. The warning signs are tricky to spot in individuals who misuse alcohol. Symptoms of the condition often overlap with AUD or other co-occurring conditions.

Some of the most commonly reported warning signs of WK include:

  • General confusion
  • Unexplained and extreme decrease in energy
  • Muscle tremors or involuntary movements
  • Lack of coordination
  • Rapid heartbeat or other heart issues
  • Feeling cold the majority of the time

The symptoms may develop over the course of several days or weeks. WK is an acute syndrome. The onset is rapid and becomes deadly very quickly unless the person receives relevant treatment.

Treatment Options at The Redpoint Center

According to the previously mentioned article by NINDS, “Most symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy can be reversed if detected and treated promptly and completely.” Immediate treatment stops the damage to nerves and brain tissue. However, some damage to memory may be permanent.

The Redpoint Center provides clients and their loved ones with information and resources to help them navigate recovery from AUD with co-occurring health issues, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Clients can rely on their care team to provide effective and appropriate treatments addressing all active and underlying problems affecting their health.

Chronic alcohol misuse often leads to severe side effects caused by malnutrition, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. The disorder is potentially deadly. Early intervention and treatment for AUD and malnutrition reduce the risk of wet brain and ensure people in treatment have the energy to focus on recovery. Outpatient treatment allows people with wet brain to spend more time in familiar environments, which may help with lingering memory issues. The care team works with clients and their loved ones to ensure the best possible treatment outcomes. The Redpoint Center provides comprehensive treatment for individuals with dual diagnoses involving more severe or persistent symptoms. To learn more about our programs and services, call our office today at (303) 710-8496.

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The Redpoint Center
1831 Lefthand Cir, Suite H
Longmont, CO 80501

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