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Alcohol-Related Dementia: An Invisible, Deadly Enemy

Cindy has been a Substance Abuse/Mental Health Counselor since 2012 and believes that a healthy mind is a happy mind.

When people talk about wet brain they may make light of the word, but wet brain is a real, and very serious, brain disorder. It’s so debilitating that in roughly one-quarter of all cases, it is fatal.

It is most often associated with alcoholics because alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb many nutrients, especially B1. Those with Crohn's disease, anorexia, and chemotherapy patients may also experience WKS for the same reason.


It’s Called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)

WKS is a debilitating brain disorder caused by malnutrition-specifically, a severe deficiency of Vitamin B1 (thiamine), as well as other essential vitamins and nutrients.

Vitamin B1 is essential to the growth and function of all the cells and tissues in our bodies. Without it, our bodily systems would fail, and our hearts and brains would fail. Since thiamine is not made by or stored in the body-it is imperative that we maintain a constant supply through our diets. Much of the food we eat contains thiamine naturally, while other foods are fortified with it. Multivitamins will also ensure we get enough thiamine in our diets.

This becomes an issue for alcoholics because not only do they tend to eat poorly, but the alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients-leading to malnutrition. This is why eating a healthy diet and taking a multivitamin daily are stressed repeatedly by the professionals helping you through recovery. You’ll hear it in detox, in rehab, in support groups, and at your doctor’s office-eat healthy foods and take a vitamin every day.

Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff's psychosis are two, overlapping disorders

Phase 1- Wernicke's encephalopathy represents the "acute" (sudden onset) phase of the disorder. It causes damage to the brain and affects a person’s memory, speech, motor skills, blood pressure and coordination, among others.

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Phase 2 - Korsakoff's psychosis syndrome is the "chronic" (long-term) stage. This is when cells in the brain and spinal column become damaged beyond repair and begin to die. This is going to cause symptoms similar to dementia: amnesia, uncontrollable tremors, disorientation, memory loss, vision problems, and in some cases, coma and death

If caught early enough, treatment may still be effective. Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms just may save someone’s life!

Signs of Warnicke encephalopathy

Rarely is WKS ever diagnosed at this point because the signs of alcohol intoxication are so similar to the symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy that the symptoms are passed off as drunkenness or a hangover. It’s usually not until a prolonged period of abstinence that people realize that their health is not improving

Symptoms of Warnicke encephalopathy include:

  • mental confusion
  • Poor balance
  • vision problems
  • Uncontrollable, jerky eye movements (called nystagmus) or droopy lids
  • Hypothermia
  • lack of muscle coordination (ataxia)
  • low blood pressure

If a diagnosis is made at this stage, there is still hope that treatment can reverse some or all symptoms, but it must be detected and treated promptly and completely. Doctors will likely treat with high doses of thiamine, and strict adherence to regular hydration and healthy meals. This will usually reverse most symptoms of phase 1 of WKS. Without treatment, these disorders can be disabling and life-threatening.

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Korsakoff's Psychosis Symptoms

Korsakoff syndrome (also called Korsakoff's amnesic syndrome) is a memory disorder that results from vitamin B1 deficiency and is associated with alcoholism. Korsakoff's syndrome damages nerve cells and supporting cells in the brain and spinal cord, as well as the part of the brain involved with memory. The disorder's main features are problems with memory, whether establishing new memories, or retrieving past ones.

Once a person reaches this phase of the disorder, it can no longer be reversed


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