What Is Wet Brain?

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What Is Wet Brain?

Wet brain is a disorder of the brain caused by a chronic thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. It's also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), named after German neurologist Carl Wernicke and neuropsychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff.

WKS can be divided into two stages or conditions: Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff's psychosis. Wet brain is most commonly seen in people with alcohol use disorder. In fact, the term 'wet brain' was developed in direct reference to the condition's link with alcohol dependence and misuse

While anyone can develop the disorder, people who consume alcohol are more likely to develop the condition. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 80% of people with alcohol use disorder have a thiamine deficiency.

Research shows that wet brain is more likely to develop in men than women. This is because men are more likely to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, the leading cause of wet brain. With the proper treatment and management, it's possible to reverse the damage the condition has caused to your brain.

Characteristics of Wet Brain 

Wet brain causes varying symptoms depending on the stage of your condition. A persistent sign is confusion, which often makes it difficult for people with the disorder to realize that something is wrong with them. Many signs of wet brain are similar to alcohol intoxication, which makes it essential to look out for signs of the condition when a person is sober. Common symptoms include: 

  • Memory loss 
  • Double vision 
  • Loss of coordination 
  • Difficulties with memory 
  • Abnormal eye movements 
  • Unusual eye movements, such as drooping eyelids 
  • Loss of body heat or hypothermia 
  • Rapid heartbeat, also known as tachycardia 
  • Drowsiness 
  • Double vision 
  • Drooping eyelids 
  • Eye muscle weakness 

When left untreated, wet brain will develop into Korsakoff's psychosis which is the fatal stage of the condition. Symptoms of this stage include:

  • Fatigue 
  • Delirium 
  • Severe memory loss 
  • Inability to form new memories 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Confabulations 
  • Difficulty focusing or paying attention 

If you or someone you love is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, it's vital to immediately contact emergency health services or your healthcare provider. 

Risk Factors

While alcohol use disorder is the leading cause of wet brain, other factors that prevent your body from getting sufficient thiamine can also trigger the disorder. Such factors include:

  • Advanced stages of cancer 
  • Kidney failure and long-term dialysis 
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Thyrotoxicosis, a condition that causes high thyroid hormone levels 
  • Heart failure that's being treated with diuretic therapy 
  • Extreme nausea and vomiting 

Stages of Wet Brain 

Wet brain occurs in two stages: Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff's psychosis. 

Wernicke's encephalopathy

The first stage of wet brain is typically severe but temporary. Wernicke's encephalopathy devolves into Korsakoff's psychosis when wet brain goes undiagnosed and untreated. At this stage, a person with this condition might find it difficult to walk or become confused when engaging in daily activities such as getting dressed. Around 80 to 90% of people with alcohol use disorder who have Wernicke's encephalopathy develop Korsakoff's psychosis.

Wernicke's encephalopathy has three main features: confusion, vision changes, and difficulty with muscular coordination. However, a person doesn't have to exhibit all three for a diagnosis to be made.

Early treatment in this stage, typically with thiamine supplements, can alleviate symptoms and prevent the condition from degenerating into Korsakoff's psychosis. Although Wernicke's encephalopathy is generally caused by alcoholism, other potential causes include severe malnutrition, liver disease, hyperthyroidism, and severe anorexia. 

Korsakoff's psychosis 

Korsakoff's psychosis occurs after Wernicke's encephalopathy. It's persistent, chronic, and typically irreversible. Symptoms of this stage of wet brain include impaired memory and learning abilities.

People with Korsakoff's psychosis have increased difficulty with coordination and movement. They will also exhibit symptoms of retrograde amnesia and find it challenging to learn and process new information.

Not everyone with Wernicke's encephalopathy will also develop Korsakoff's psychosis; it typically develops due to misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment of the former condition. 

The condition is also referred to as alcoholic dementia because of its ability to cause severe memory loss and induce hallucinations and behavioral changes, which are all hallmarks of dementia. People with Korsakoff's psychosis experience memory loss and have difficulty forming new memories. You might find that they can narrate an ordeal to you in detail an hour after it happens but cannot remember it a few days later. 

Identifying Wet Brain 

A proper diagnosis of wet brain can't be made for a person with alcohol use disorder until they are in recovery. This is because many symptoms of wet brain are similar to withdrawal symptoms from alcohol. Early diagnosis of wet brain is essential for effective treatment of the condition.

Your doctor will order tests to check your thiamine levels when attempting to diagnose wet brain. They might also check for signs of alcohol use disorder which is the leading cause of wet brain. A brain MRI to show if there has been any damage to tissues in your brain might be recommended. 

Causes of Wet Brain

Wet brain is caused by a severe thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Thiamine is essential for converting sugar to energy in our bodies and creating chemical messengers in our brains. Chronic alcohol users often have inflamed digestive tracts, making it difficult for the body to absorb the thiamine it needs from the foods they consume.

Alcohol misuse also makes it hard for the body to convert and use the thiamine that it does absorb. 

Treatment for Wet Brain 

There is currently no cure for wet brain. Early diagnosis and treatment can reverse some of the symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy, which is the first stage of the condition. Administering high doses of thiamine is the first course of action when treating wet brain because the brain severely lacks the nutrient. However, this is most effective in the early stages of the condition, where thiamine can still help to improve brain function.

Thiamine will either be administered orally or intravenously. Other vitamins and supplements which will help your body more effectively produce and utilize thiamine might also be recommended by your doctor. However, thiamine does little to help with Korsakoff's psychosis as it can't help to reverse memory loss. 

Coping With Wet Brain

Wet brain is a severe disorder that needs early diagnosis and adequate treatment. If you are lucky to have gotten an early diagnosis, the damage done to your brain is still reversible. In addition to your treatment plan, the following management techniques can help you make a full recovery. 

  • Abstinence from alcohol: Wet brain is often caused by alcohol misuse. Abstaining from alcohol completely while receiving treatment for wet brain is vital for a full recovery. Abstinence should persist even after making a full recovery from the condition. 
  • Maintain a balanced diet: While wet brain is caused by a thiamine deficiency specifically, consuming the daily recommended doses of other essential vitamins and nutrients can help your body more effectively absorb and utilize thiamine being given as treatment for the condition. 
  • Eat foods rich in thiamine: It's essential to continue eating foods that are rich in thiamine even after you discontinue thiamine supplements. Foods like oranges, milk, spinach, pork, and soybeans are all rich in thiamine. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Alcohol Alert.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Sex and gender differences in substance use.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Wernicke-korsakoff syndrome: causes, symptoms & treatment.

  4. National Library of Medicine. Wernicke-korsakoff syndrome.

  5. Vasan S, Kumar A. Wernicke Encephalopathy. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  6. NORD (National Organization for Rare Disorders). Wernicke-korsakoff syndrome.

  7. National Library of Medicine. Thiamin.

By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.