Alcohol abuse has many detrimental side effects. There’s the stress it puts on relationships, and the shame it can cause within a person. Then, there’s the physical side effects, including liver disease or cardiovascular disease. However, the effects of alcoholism on brain health are often overlooked.
There is a strong connection between alcoholism and brain health. One of the most damaging brain conditions associated with alcohol abuse is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, also known as wet brain disease or alcohol-related dementia. The condition can come on fairly suddenly and change a person’s life, but it can also be treated and some of the symptoms can be reversed. Getting into treatment or getting alcohol detox at home is an important step for treating wet brain disease.
Here’s what everyone with a history of problem drinking should know about wet brain disease.
What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is actually two separate disorders: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome. However, they are closely related, and someone who develops Wernicke encephalopathy has about an 80 percent chance or more of developing Korsakoff syndrome. Although scientists aren’t entirely sure, it seems that Wernicke encephalopathy almost always comes before a diagnosis of Korsakoff’s syndrome.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome occurs in about one to two percent of the population in the United States, but it’s more common in alcoholics. In fact, in Western countries it’s most likely to occur in people who have a history of alcohol abuse (although it can also be linked to malnutrition). That’s because the condition is associated with low levels of vitamin B1, also called thiamine. Alcohol affects vitamin in B1 is a few negative ways: it reduces stores in the liver and makes the body less effective at absorbing B1 and converting it into a state that the body can use. Because of this, it’s important for patients who are still drinking to stop when they start having symptoms of wet brain disease.
What are the symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?
Wet brain disease symptoms are similar to the symptoms of memory loss, which is why Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is sometimes called alcohol-related dementia. The symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome unfold in a predictable way, which can help doctors diagnose the condition.
First, people often begin experiencing the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy. This is considered the acute phase of the disease, when symptoms appear over the course of a few weeks. The symptoms include:
- Cognitive Changes. This is the primary symptom of Wernicke encephalopathy. People often feel confused or disorientated, and in some severe cases might become delirious. Other mental changes can include feeling tired or being unable to pay attention.
- Changes to movement. This is known as ataxia and presents as changes to the way people walk. People with Wernicke encephalopathy might walk in an unsteady manner, or during the worst part of the disease, be unable to walk alone at all.
- Changes To Eyesight. People with Wernicke encephalopathy might experience involuntary eye movements or have their eye muscles become paralyzed. Double vision is another common symptoms.
Often when the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy begin to lesson, a person will start to experience symptoms of Korsakoff Syndrome, which is characterized short-term memory loss and the inability to make new short-term memories.
How is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome diagnosed and treated?
People who are showing symptoms of wet brain disease need to undergo careful evaluation to rule out other conditions. They often also have testing to measure their levels of B1, and brain scans that can show physical brain changes that indicate the condition.
People with wet brain disease are treated first with an infusion of B1. This often begins helping their symptoms quickly. In addition, people with the condition need to make lifestyle changes, which includes alcohol detox and eating a healthy diet.
However, The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke points out that the memory changes caused by Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be long-lasting or even permanent. Because of this, many people with the condition need to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate their abilities, which may be diminished by their memory loss.