What is Wet Brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome) - ARISE

What is Wet Brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome) - ARISE

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcoholism is a common problem in the United States, affecting 14.1 million adults in 2019.[1] This illness can cause an array of adverse effects, such as financial devastation, social isolation, increased mental health problems, and the development of physical health conditions. The health issues associated with alcohol addiction are wide-ranging, from liver and heart disease to strokes and even some forms of cancer.

Drinking large amounts of alcohol for a long time can even lead to the development of chronic brain disorders. One of the lesser-known consequences of alcoholism is a brain disorder known as Wernicke Encephalopathy or Korsakoff’s Psychosis, also known as wet brain. This illness is potentially life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

What is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain is the unofficial term for two related medical diagnoses: Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s Psychosis. These conditions often occur together, with Wernicke Encephalopathy developing first and eventually leading to the development of Korsakoff’s Psychosis. Together, these conditions are referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome or WKS.

Both of these conditions are caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency and brain damage that stems from heavy alcohol abuse. Wernicke Encephalopathy develops first, causing damage to lower parts of the brain such as the hypothalamus and thalamus. This damage causes you to experience Korsakoff’s Psychosis, leading to debilitating psychological symptoms that may be permanent.[2]

How Does Wet Brain Develop?

Wet brain is not a common condition, only affecting about 1 to 2% of the U.S. population.[3] This brain disorder is caused by a variety of factors, all related to the heavy use of alcohol.

When you struggle with alcoholism you tend to neglect your nutritional needs, often leading to vitamin deficiencies. Vitamin B1 is an essential vitamin that does not occur naturally in the body. Instead, you must consume foods that contain it, like poultry, whole grain cereals, nuts, and more.

When you are addicted to alcohol, all you think about is obtaining and drinking the substance. Because of this, you may not receive the vitamin B1 that your body so desperately needs. Alcohol also irritates and damages tissues in your digestive tract, making it harder for your body to absorb nutrients like vitamin B1.

Even further, long-term alcohol abuse can lead to conditions like cancer, HIV/AIDS, heart failure, and even long-term dialysis. All of these health conditions cause a vitamin B1 deficiency, increasing your risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS).[2]

Lastly, if you chronically abuse alcohol you may suffer from severe bouts of nausea and vomiting. Frequent vomiting can severely deplete your body of essential nutrients like vitamin B1. This is also another way that a wet brain may develop among individuals with an alcohol use disorder.

The Symptoms of Wet Brain

Because wet brain syndrome occurs in two stages, it’s best to take a look at the symptoms of this condition as they arise. The first stage of wet brain syndrome is Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. According to the National Organization for Rare Diseases, 80-90% of people who have Wernicke’s Encephalopathy develop Korsakoff’s Psychosis.[3]

The symptoms of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy include:

  • Twitching
  • Confusion
  • Short-term memory issues
  • Poor reflexes
  • Uncontrollable or unusual eye movements
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Loss of balance
  • Blurred vision
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Increased heart rate
  • Weakness and muscle atrophy
  • Low body temperature
  • Mental processing issues

Many of the symptoms of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy can be confused with either drunkenness or alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Unfortunately, if this condition is left untreated it will turn into Korsakoff’s Psychosis.

The symptoms of Korsakoff’s Psychosis include:

  • An inability to form new memories
  • Severe loss of memory
  • Making up stories (confabulation)
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not there (hallucinations)
  • Anger and frustration
  • Personality changes
  • Increased talkativeness

The advanced stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome lead to coma and death in 10-20% of patients.[3]

How Can an Alcohol Rehab Center Help?

While wet brain syndrome is an incurable disorder, early detection can prevent it from becoming severe and life-threatening. As mentioned earlier, 80-90% of people with Wernicke’s Encephalopathy develop Korsakoff’s Psychosis without proper treatment. If you do receive proper medical intervention in time, you can avoid the late-stage consequences of this disease such as coma and death.

When you attend an alcohol rehab center and display the signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, medical professionals will begin your recovery process by providing you with vitamin B1 infusions to address your deficiency. Balancing your vitamin B1 levels will prevent the condition from progressing.

Vitamin B1 infusions will address any confusion, delirium, vision issues, and muscle coordination. However, it is important to note that Vitamin B1 will not improve issues with intellect or memory, as brain damage cannot be reversed. Receiving this treatment will only prevent any further brain damage from occurring.

In addition to treating and preventing the worsening of Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome, an alcohol rehab center will teach you how to gain and maintain long-term sobriety. This will prevent you from relapsing in the future and furthering your wet brain syndrome. Alcohol rehab programs do this by using a combination of medical detox, behavioral therapies, FDA-approved medications, and peer support to help you overcome the causes and effects of your substance use disorder.

Get Help for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Today

If you or a loved one suffer from long-term alcoholism, it’s time to seek help. Abusing alcohol frequently and for a long time can lead to serious health complications, like the development of a brain disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome. To prevent yourself from experiencing the consequences of late-stage alcoholism, consider attending a professional alcohol treatment program.

Arise Treatment Center can help you gain the tools and support you need to make a full recovery. Contact us today for more information on how to get started.


  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  2. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000771.htm
  3. https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome/