Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, also known as “wet brain”, is a mix of two diseases: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Individuals develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome due to inadequate levels of thiamine, commonly known as vitamin B1. About one to two percent of individuals in the U.S. develop this illness, with males between 30 to 70 years of ages slightly at more risk than females of the same age cluster.
The two problems connect with each other in various ways. Wernicke encephalopathy generally develops first, creating damage to the thalamus and hypothalamus found in the brain. When Wernicke encephalopathy damages these parts of the brain, the development of Korsakoff’s psychosis usually occurs as a result. Furthermore, as Korsakoff’s psychosis symptoms escalate, Wernicke encephalopathy symptoms often tend to subside. Korsakoff’s psychosis might not materialize if an individual gets medical treatment for Wernicke encephalopathy early on.
It’s worth recognizing the relationship with thiamine and alcohol. When a person excessively and continually drinks alcohol, it disrupts how thiamine is absorbed by their gastrointestinal system. Therefore, the liver has a hard time storing the vitamin. Because of the absence of thiamine, the organ system has a difficult time functioning, especially the brain.
It’s also worth noting that Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can occur for any type of explanation that results in vitamin B1 deficiency. Instances include bariatric surgery, gastric cancer or issues with the stomach and intestine that make it hard to absorb nutrients.
While both are separate conditions with a variety of symptoms, Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis frequently develop simultaneously. Below are the symptoms for both conditions:
- Extreme confusion
- Loss of past memories
- Korsakoff’s psychosis
- Trouble remembering events
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Vision changes such as double vision
- Wernicke encephalopathy
- Alcohol withdrawal
- Failure to create new memories
- Making up stories to substitute lost memories; likewise known as confabulation
Also, after an individual is diagnosed with both disorders, they are likewise in jeopardy of falling after loss of consciousness, enduring heart problems due to rapid heart rate and reduced blood pressure when standing.
While there are uncommon circumstances in which an individual may be cured of the illness without seeking medical treatment, the person runs the risk of irreversible damage to the brain which can bring about death. Unattended Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome could result in:
- Long-term loss of memories and cognitive ability
- Reduced life expectancy
- Alcohol withdrawal, which can be deadly without proper medical supervision
- Injury from falling
- Alcoholic neuropathy, or permanent nerve damage
- Trouble with communicating
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and Alcohol Abuse
In developed countries, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the top contributor for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that around 88,000 people die every year from complications involving alcohol abuse, with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome a clear example of that. Additionally, roughly 12 to 14 percent of individuals who consume large amounts of alcohol are at risk of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism revealed brain damage from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome corresponds to how much and how often a person drinks. The age the individual began drinking coupled with the length of time the person has been drinking plays a role as well, along with a person’s sex or age. Individuals that have a family history of alcohol addiction are also more likely to develop the condition. Furthermore, individuals who were exposed to alcohol while in the womb have a higher chance of forming Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Diagnosis & Treatment
There are numerous procedures involved when identifying Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. They consist of:
- Blood testings to see how much thiamine is in the body and just how well the liver and kidneys are functioning
- Mental health examinations
- Imaging scans of the brain like an MRI to dismiss issues like a tumor or stroke
- Tests to inspect the brain and nervous system
- Assessments to find changes in walking
- Eye examinations to examine eye movement
Many people who are diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome require medical treatment in an institutional setting like a hospital. Proper medical treatment can take years and require extended durations of sobriety.
Normally, people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome that receive medical treatment will receive thiamine and magnesium through IVs. After correct treatment, patients will see improvement within two to three weeks. There are other kinds of treatments. The most important step needs to be stopping the physical dependence to alcohol. This is so the individual can remain sober while recuperating from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
At the end of the day, abstaining from alcohol use is the only way to stop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome related to alcohol abuse. While it can be discouraging to not just treat Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome but also deal with alcohol addiction, the process doesn’t have to be dealt with alone. With appropriate assistance from medical professionals, together with the assistance of friends and family, the road to recovery for both Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and alcohol addiction can be achieved.