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Alcohol and Health

What Is Wet Brain Syndrome?

October 26, 2023
11 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
October 26, 2023
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
October 26, 2023
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
October 26, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
October 26, 2023
11 min read

Hearing the term “wet brain” for the first time might be a bit confusing. How can a brain get wet? And wait, when was it ever dry to begin with?

While the term is a bit odd, it represents an important concept — the long-term effects of alcohol misuse on the brain. Let's dive into the science behind this condition and learn how to protect our brain health.

What on Earth Is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Don't worry, your brain isn't going to dissolve into a puddle! “Wet brain” is a colloquial term for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), a condition primarily seen in people who have had prolonged periods of heavy drinking. The "wet" part of “wet brain” has nothing to do with your brain getting soaked in alcohol (thank goodness!) — rather, it refers to the harmful effect that alcohol can have on the brain's health over time.

How Does This Happen?

Imagine hosting a party where every guest was allergic to peanuts, but you served a peanut butter pie anyway. Just as you wouldn't expect your guests to thrive in that environment, the same goes for your brain with a prolonged exposure to alcohol.

At the center of this story is vitamin B1 (thiamine), a crucial cog that our brain needs to keep the wheels turning smoothly. It’s essential for the brain's energy metabolism: it helps the brain convert food into the energy it needs to function properly. Without thiamine, things go haywire — the brain can't produce enough energy to carry out its tasks effectively, leading to damage in areas that are responsible for memory, learning, and muscle coordination. 

Signs of Trouble

So where does booze come in? For one thing, chronic, heavy alcohol use can cause poor nutrition — people are less likely to consume enough vitamin-rich foods, so vitamin B stores get depleted. Moreover, alcohol interferes with the absorption, metabolism, and storage of thiamine, leading to Wernicke's encephalopathy

Named after German neurologist Carl Wernicke, who described the condition in the late 19th century, Wernicke’s encephalopathy is the first stage of WKS; it tends to be short-lived and severe. While it’s often associated with alcohol misuse, the condition can also occur in people with severe malnutrition from other causes, such as prolonged vomiting or those with certain eating disorders.

This inefficiency shows up as a characteristic triad of symptoms: mental confusion, ophthalmoplegia (eye muscle paralysis), and ataxia (unsteady, uncoordinated movements).

  • Mental confusion is often one of the first symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy. An individual experiencing this might feel disoriented or have difficulty concentrating. They may struggle to pay attention or may not seem entirely aware of their surroundings.
  • Ophthalmoplegia refers to the paralysis or weakness of the muscles controlling the eyes, which can result in a range of eye movement abnormalities. A person with this symptom may have difficulty moving their eyes, or they may experience double vision.
  • Ataxia refers to a loss of control over bodily movements, particularly the muscles that need to be coordinated for walking. A person with ataxia may have a wide-based gait, frequent stumbles, or trouble balancing. 

The silver lining in the case of Wernicke's encephalopathy is that it can be treated, and its effects can be reversed if caught early enough. This is typically done by administering high doses of thiamine, usually through an IV in a hospital setting. Unfortunately, however, these three symptoms don't always appear together, and they can vary in intensity, which can sometimes make Wernicke's encephalopathy difficult to diagnose, leading to more permanent brain damage. 

Does This Mean I'll Lose My Memory?

Here's the sobering part: yes, it could. The second stage of wet brain syndrome — Korsakoff's psychosis — is where the condition gets its notorious reputation for memory loss. Named after Sergei Korsakoff, the Russian neuropsychiatrist who first characterized the syndrome in the late 19th century, this stage is often a chronic, long-term condition that follows or is accompanied by the symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy.

During this stage, people can have difficulty forming new memories, experience long-term memory gaps, and in some cases, even hallucinate. And it's not just a "where did I put my keys?" kind of forgetfulness, but more of a "did I have breakfast this morning?" type of scenario.

To make matters more complicated, people with Korsakoff's psychosis may experience confabulation, in which a person fills in their memory gaps with information that may not be true, but that they believe to be accurate. For instance, they might insist they had lunch with a friend today, when, in fact, they had lunch alone. They’re not lying; their brain is trying to make sense of missing pieces. Think of Korsakoff's as a game of "Memory" with some cards missing from the deck: it's frustrating and confusing to play with an incomplete set.

Korsakoff's psychosis can also cause personality changes. An individual may seem indifferent, apathetic, or lacking initiative. They might also have trouble with tasks that require planning or organizing.

Now here's the scary part: while treatment with thiamine can help stop the progression of Korsakoff's psychosis and improve some symptoms, it often doesn't reverse memory loss or cognitive changes. That's why early detection and prevention are absolutely key.

Strategies to manage alcohol consumption

Yikes! How Do I Avoid This?

Ah, the million-dollar question. Of course, the main thing is to minimize alcohol use — especially over the long term. Having a healthy, balanced diet rich in thiamine can help, as can taking thiamine supplements if you're concerned about your intake. And, of course, seeking help if you're finding it difficult to manage your alcohol consumption is key.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Assess your drinking. Keep a record of how much you're drinking, and be honest with yourself if it's too much.
  • Moderation is key. Limit your alcohol intake. The CDC suggests no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Ensure your diet includes thiamine-rich foods like whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean meats, and seafood. A varied and nutritious diet helps provide the essential nutrients your brain needs to function optimally.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking alcohol can lead to dehydration, which can worsen the effects of thiamine deficiency. Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Boost your thiamine. Include thiamine-rich foods in your diet, such as lean pork, whole grains, and nuts.
  • Consider supplements. If your diet is lacking, consider taking a thiamine supplement, especially if you drink alcohol regularly.
  • Reach out. If you're finding it difficult to cut back on alcohol, don't hesitate to seek professional help. Alcohol use disorder is a real and serious health issue, and there are many resources available to help.

At the end of the day, our brains are our personal supercomputers, involved in every decision we make, every emotion we feel, every memory we cherish. So, next time you're planning a night out or a chill evening with a bottle of wine, remember — moderation is your friend. Here's to keeping our brains dry and our spirits high!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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