Alcoholic Brain Disease | Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome | Wet Brain

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 14, 2020

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is especially bad for your brain. Long-term heavy drinking can result in the development of alcoholic brain disease, a disease known by many names with permanent consequences.

Alcoholic Brain Disease

The brain is significantly affected by alcohol consumption. Neurons are impaired directly by alcohol, which ends up negatively affecting decision-making, judgment, and other higher brain functions.

Years of extreme alcohol abuse often result in vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition, resulting in brain damage. The brain requires a minimum level of vitamins and nutrients to function, and the damage that results from alcohol abuse impairs these functions.

Alcoholic brain disease is a term that is sometimes used interchangeably with alcohol-related brain damage, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis), wet brain, or alcohol-induced neurocognitive disorder.

What Is Alcoholic Brain Disease?

Alcoholic brain disease is most commonly referred to as wet-brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. As with most alcohol-related diseases and neurological disorders, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is progressive and can lead to severe impairments.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is two separate conditions that are seen together, in most cases: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. It is a brain disorder that results in impaired, and sometimes permanent, brain function.

Wernicke’s is a type of encephalopathy or a brain disease that impairs brain function, which is a result of damage to both the thalamus and the hypothalamus in the brain. Individuals with Wernicke’s encephalopathy experience problems with muscle coordination and confusion.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy symptoms occur early on, usually before the onset of the symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Specific symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:

  • double vision
  • low body temperature
  • uncontrolled abnormal eye movement (nystagmus)
  • droopy eyelids
  • low blood pressure
  • leg tremors
  • gait problems (ataxia)
  • confusion (ex. unable to figure out how to leave a room)

As Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome progresses, typical symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy begin to wane and the symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis emerge.

Symptoms Of Alcoholic Brain Disease

The symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis, or Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome, are chronic and make up the more severe symptoms of alcoholic brain disease. A person who is struggling with Korsakoff’s psychosis will experience issues with memory loss and forming new memories, while other areas of executive function remain unaffected.

A person struggling with severe alcoholic brain disease is likely to show some of these symptoms:

  • impulsivity
  • vision issues
  • amnesia
  • inappropriate social interactions
  • disorientation
  • neuropathy
  • memory problems
  • coma
  • possible hallucinations

Individuals with alcoholic brain disease may also try to fill in the blanks when they are struggling with memory issues. Loved ones may be confused when their alcoholic family member begins telling stories that never happened, and be equally baffled when the person actually believes the stories they are telling (confabulations).


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Researchers have yet to find the cause for these types of confabulations, but there is a possibility that it is a defense mechanism, or a way in which the brain is protecting the individual from the degree of brain damage due to alcohol consumption.

Causes Of Alcoholic Wet Brain

Alcohol is a toxin, and over time, it can cause brain impairments in a number of ways.

Long-term alcohol consumption, especially binge drinking, often leads to:

  • poisoning of brain cells
  • cerebrovascular disease (a disease that affects the blood supply to the brain)
  • stress from withdrawal and intoxication cycles
  • head injuries
  • thiamine deficiency

Research has shown that severe alcoholic brain disease, or Korsakoff’s psychosis, is the result of damage in multiple areas of the brain, including those that control the formation and recall of memories.

Alcohol Addiction And Thiamine Deficiency

Long-term alcohol abusers often have a poor diet, which can lead to malnutrition. In addition, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol may also affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients (malabsorption).

Thiamine deficiency leads to a number of health issues in the body and is present in approximately 80 percent of individuals with alcoholism.

The Role Of Thiamine Deficiency In Alcoholic Brain Disease

Thiamine (Vitamin B1) is necessary for the body to function. Thiamine is not produced by the body, so it has to be ingested. It is recommended that a person consume 1.1 mg of thiamine per day to ensure proper functioning.

Thiamine plays a key role in the central nervous system, specifically the function of brain cells. This is because several enzymes rely on thiamine for proper assembly and function. These enzymes are subsequently responsible for breaking down sugar molecules, which provide energy for a number of essential biochemical reactions.

Without the energy necessary to function, neurons and supporting brain cells become impaired and damaged, and cell death can occur. Specific areas of the brain that are significantly affected by a Vitamin B1 deficiency are the frontal lobe, cerebellum, brain stem, mamillary body, thalamus, and hypothalamus.

Thiamine deficiency can lead to lesions, or scar tissue, developing in these areas of the brain, resulting in permanently impaired functions.

Thiamine deficiency has been linked to alcoholic brain disease, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, and alcoholic dementia, as well as heart problems.

Some additional functions that are dependent on thiamine include:

  • creating brain chemicals, like serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters
  • production of nucleic acid (genetic material of the cell)
  • manufacturing of fatty acids, sugars, and steroids

Diagnosing Alcoholic Brain Disease

Unfortunately, there are no specific tests to diagnose alcoholic brain disease. The most important assessment tools that a medical professional has when exploring a potential diagnosis for alcoholic brain disease are a thorough patient history (including alcohol use history) and screening to assess memory impairments.

If a patient reveals a history of being a heavy drinker or binge drinking, memory problems, and is currently experiencing symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy or Korsakoff’s psychosis, a diagnosis of alcoholic brain disease is likely.

Treating Alcoholic Brain Disease

The first line of treatment for suspected alcoholic brain disease is to give thiamine injections. These injections should alleviate many of the acute symptoms, and a thorough assessment can be completed.

It is also recommended that patients are given additional supplements that include thiamine, magnesium, and other vitamins and nutrients.

If after approximately seven days of this treatment, the memory issues and mental health issues associated with Korsakoff’s psychosis do not resolve, it is likely that there is permanent brain damage.

Thiamine should be given daily to any patient that continues to consume alcohol, but it is strongly encouraged that the individual stops drinking alcohol to prevent further damage.

Alcoholism Treatment Options

Once a person has started a treatment regimen for alcoholic brain disease, they will likely benefit from a substance abuse treatment program. At a rehab facility, medical professionals can treat any alcohol withdrawal symptoms while they are receiving treatment.

In addition, educational information on proper nutrition and the effects of nutritional deficiencies are often offered at comprehensive addiction treatment facilities.

Contact our professional addiction treatment specialists today, and let us help you find a program that you or your loved one can benefit from.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 14, 2020


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