Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is also known as: Korsakoff’s psychosis, alcoholic encephalopathy, Wernicke’s disease, or more commonly referred to as wet brain. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is caused by a Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency and causes a severe memory disorder. Chronic, heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to this thiamine deficiency and cause wet brain. Wet brain can also occur in people who do not consume alcohol, but eat a diet mainly consisting of polished white rice, or vomit excessively.
The Brain and Body Need Thiamine
The body needs thiamine for a large number of cellular processes. Many of these processes involve glucose metabolism and amino acid synthesis. The brain needs thiamine to convert glucose. Overtime, a severe thiamine deficiency leads to a large number of brain cells dying. Certain areas in the brain also suffer structural damage. The areas that are most affected are: the brain stem, the cerebral cortex, and pons.
Alcoholism can Cause Wet Brain
One of the most common causes of a thiamine deficiency, wet brain, is alcoholism. People who have a severe alcohol addiction may neglect their own nutrition and only care about alcohol. Not only does this create an overall malnutrition in the body, but also a thiamine deficiency.
Two Stages of Wet Brain
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is not a gradual brain disorder, but is brought on suddenly by a large dose of glucose in someone who already has a severe thiamine deficiency. There are two stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.
The First Stage
The first stage of the disorder is the Wernicke encephalopathy stage. This stage and its symptoms will appear suddenly. A person may seem mentally confused. They may have difficulty moving their eyes; because of paralysis of the muscles that control the eyes. They may have ataxia or difficulties maintaining balance while standing or walking. If these symptoms are left untreated, they will actually disappear.
However, the Korsakoff psychosis symptoms, or the memory symptoms, will still be present and will gradually worsen.
The Second Stage
The second stage of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, wet brain, is the Korsakoff psychosis stage. When a person is in this stage they will appear fairly normal. They may seem intelligent and able to carry on conversations. They will be able to recognize friends and family and recall memories from before the beginning of the disorder. During a conversation a person may begin to repeat themselves, or repeat the other person many times. After meeting someone they may leave the room and come back with excitement, acting as if they had never met. The term for this memory loss is called anterograde amnesia. This means that a person is unable to format and store new memories.
The brain can process new information, but then it is forgotten almost immediately. The information is unable to make it to the parts of the brain where past memories are stored. Therefore, a person who has Korsakoff symptoms will be unable to remember new information. They will be able to recall past memories, but once the illness occurs, all memories from here on out will be forgotten.
Symptoms of Wet Brain
Wernicke Encephalopathy Stage Symptoms
* Unequal pupil size
* Rapid Eye Movement
* Paralysis of eye muscles
* Eyes slowly react to light
* Lack of muscle coordination
The symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy stage may appear as if the person was only intoxicated, however, even when the intoxication goes away, the symptoms are still present.
Korsakoff Psychosis Stage Symptoms
* Anterograde amnesia or the inability to create new memories
* Retrograde amnesia or the inability to recall past memories
* Confabulation or the creation of false memories
* Hallucinations or seeing and hearing things that are not there
Other Symptoms for Both Stages
People in either stage of wet brain may also show signs of apathy and little emotional expression. They may also show the inability to have proper motor coordination, slurred speech, and the inability to recognize people and objects.
Statistics of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Based on postmortem autopsies, research has shown that Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, wet brain, is found in 1-2% of people. Wet brain normally occurs in people who have had severe alcoholism for many years. Typically, it affects addicts who are over the age of 40. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome or wet brain is more common in malnourished, indigenous, or homeless alcoholics.
Diagnosis and Prognosis
Wernicke encephalopathy is diagnosed when a person seeks medical care and has the any of the classic symptoms listed above. Korsakoff psychosis is diagnosed when a person who has a history of severe alcoholism or malnutrition and is found to have anterograde amnesia. If it follows Wernicke encephalopathy symptoms then it is most certain that the person has wet brain.
If Wernicke encephalopathy is found in a person, they will be given thiamine, in doing so, the addict can recover completely. However, if wet brain is not found or left untreated the prognosis is very poor. Once Korsakoff psychosis develops, at least 80% of people will not be able to regain their ability to learn and store new information. This normally means that the person will need someone to take care of them for the rest of their lives.
Treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
If caught in the beginning, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, wet brain, can be treated. The person will be given large amounts of thiamine through an IV. After receiving thiamine through an IV, they will be given oral doses to continue if they continue their addiction. After their thiamine levels are regulated they may be given glucose substitutions. If the thiamine is given in the late stages, or once the amnesia has developed, then there is very little that doctors can do.
Research is showing that two types of medication used to treat Alzheimer’s, Donepezil and Rivastigmine can help to improve the memory of a person suffering from wet brain. People who began taking these medications had a slight increase in memory abilities, as well as recognition of family, friends, and medical staff.
Prevention of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, wet brain, can be avoided by either quitting alcohol (which is preferred) or at least eating a nutritional diet that consists of thiamine. Anyone who suffers from alcoholism should get help at a rehab in order to prevent wet brain.
Wet brain is a very serious issue. Anyone who may think that they are showing signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome or wet brain needs to get immediate help.
Written by: Cait Saul