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Alcoholic Brain: Is Alcohol Brain Damage Reversible?

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Of all the drugs in existence today, there isn’t one more glamorized than alcohol. Whether it’s our favorite television show or movie, it’s common for the main character to pour a glass of whiskey in their office or pop open a beer at an inappropriate time. When you really think about it, what other drug is viewed this way? Despite the easy access and popularity, it’s actually one of the most dangerous drugs in the world.

Alcohol is responsible for liver disease, kidney problems, drunk driving, and violence. Although a beer or two on occasion isn’t terrible, a person with no tolerance could get behind the wheel and get into a fatal accident. With that said, even drinking in moderation can be dangerous if you’re not responsible. 

Those who drink excessively, which is five or more drinks on an occasion for men or four or more for women, is associated with an increased risk of health problems. Long-term drinking can also cause an alcoholic brain, otherwise known as “wet brain,” or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). WKS is a brain disorder relating to the acute and chronic phases of a vitamin B1 deficiency. 

Fortunately, you can reverse the symptoms of the condition when caught early, but without treatment, wet brain can lead to difficulties with muscle coordination, hallucinations, and irreversible confusion. 

What is Alcoholic Brain?

Alcoholic brain, or wet brain, is a condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It is a severe and often life-threatening brain disorder comprised of two different conditions.

The first part of WKS is known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is a temporary but severe condition characterized by loss of muscular coordination, confusion, and abnormal vision changes or eye movements. 

The second part of WKS is known as Korsakoff’s psychosis. It typically follows or accompanies Wernicke’s encephalopathy. The psychosis aspect is a persistent and chronic condition that causes significant impairment in memory and learning. It also interferes with an individual’s ability to function normally. Alcoholic brain is sometimes referred to by its more casual name, wet brain because it’s a condition that is a consequence of several years spent abusing the drug. 

The symptoms of WKC start from a deficiency in thiamine typically associated with heavy alcohol use but can also stem from malnutrition and other diseases. An estimated 80 percent of those with severe alcohol use disorders will become thiamine deficient. An individual must be in a sober mindstate to demonstrate the symptoms of alcoholic brain because withdrawal and other medical complications from alcohol use can mimic the symptoms of WKS.

An estimated one to two percent of the general population will develop WKS, but those who chronically drink show prevalence rates of 12 to 14 percent

alcohol-brain-damage

How Abuse is Connect to Alcoholic Brain

Thiamine (vitamin B1) is an essential nutrient used by all parts of our body that can only be obtained through our diet. Thiamine deficiency will cause damage to the nerves, brain, and heart. In the United States, abusing alcohol is the number one cause of thiamine deficiency and the development of WKS.

Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to thiamine deficiency due to malabsorption and poor nutrition. Someone who drinks heavily does not eat a balanced diet and will not take in sufficient levels of vitamin B1 to meet their nutritional needs. 

For our bodies to absorb thiamine, it needs to pass through the gastrointestinal tract and get transported to tissues in the body. Absorption is decreased in those who chronically abuse alcohol. Alcohol consumption also causes inflammation in the digestive tract, making it more difficult for our bodies to absorb thiamine. Heavy drinking also makes it difficult for our bodies to process and utilize thiamine in the body’s cells. 

Thiamine is vital for building enzymes that play a crucial role in processing and converting sugar into energy. It also helps to create genetic material in the cells as well as chemical messengers in the brain.

Symptoms of Alcoholic Brain

The symptoms of alcoholic brain, or wet brain, are similar to what you might expect of someone under the influence of the substance. However, these symptoms will persist in the absence of alcohol. The most common symptoms include:

  • Behavioral changes
  • Memory loss
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Vision changes or double vision

Family members might notice specific characteristics develop in someone with alcoholic brain, including:

  • Lying or making up stories
  • Difficulty and resistance
  • Irritability or frustration

In addition to the long-term mental and physical deterioration, WKS may also lead to reduced consciousness, coma, or in some cases, death.

Is Alcoholic Brain Reversible?

Fortunately, cessation of alcohol can potentially reverse alcoholic brain. The severity of someone’s symptoms, how early they start treatment, and the type of treatment received will all play roles and significantly impact whether or not the condition is reversed or alleviated. 

In some cases, a person will make a full recovery, although this is not likely. Thiamine therapy can offer some levels of improvement in symptoms anywhere from five to 12 days after. 

How is Alcoholic Brain Treated?

The primary means of treating Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome is through thiamine supplementation. Abstinence from alcohol during the process is necessary while receiving treatment for the condition. Since WKS stems from a thiamine deficiency, high doses of thiamine have been proven as the most effective means for reversing or preventing symptoms, especially in the early stages of WKS.

Thiamine can be taken as an intramuscular or intravenous injection or as an oral supplement to restore someone’s thiamine levels to normal and reduce symptoms. Other vitamins or supplements could be provided as well, helping the body increase thiamine levels in the body. Increasing the levels of thiamine will reduce confusion, increase coordination, reduce memory problems, and improve eye function in patients with WKS.

Treating Alcohol Use Disorder

Those who develop the syndrome are likely heavy drinkers, and abstaining from alcohol could be fatal without the right care. By getting treatment, you’ll slow the progression of the condition and improve chronic symptoms of WKS. Treatment will also help you avoid deadly withdrawal symptoms caused by alcohol, including seizures or delirium tremens (DTs). Once you complete medical detox, you will be moved to another level of care where alcoholic brain can be treated and get you on the right path toward a healthier lifestyle. 

If you’re looking to change your life or reverse the symptoms of this dangerous condition, you’re only a phone call away. Don’t let alcohol steal another moment of your life. 

Medications Used for Alcoholism

Sometimes, behavioral therapies aren’t always enough to overcome alcoholism. Many specialists will turn to medications to help alleviate some of the symptoms or discourage an individual from drinking. Currently, only three medications exist with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, and none of these are prescribed to those who are actively drinking. These were designed for those who have already stopped drinking and seeking abstinence. 

Antabuse (Disulfiram)

Antabuse was the first medication approved for treating alcohol dependence and abuse. It causes a severe adverse reaction if someone uses the drug and consumes alcohol. In most cases, a person who drinks will vomit after drinking alcohol, which is the deterrent to drinking. 

In early testing, Antabuse was given in larger doses to produce aversion conditioning to alcohol and make someone sick when they drank. However, doctors found that many severe reactions, including death, took place. The drug was then administered in much smaller doses. 

Naltrexone

Naltrexone is an extended-release, monthly injectable form of naltrexone, sometimes known as Vivitrol. It’s an effective means for treating alcohol and opioid addiction because it’s only administered once a month. It works by blocking the high someone experiences when drinking alcohol or using opioids. It has been one of the most successful means of treating alcohol addiction. 

Campral (Acamprosate)

Campral is the most recent medication addition used to treat alcohol dependence or alcoholism. It works by reducing emotional discomfort and physical distress that someone experiences when they abstain from alcohol. It’s one of the few drugs approved by the FDA. The drug is currently marketed in the United States by Forest Pharmaceuticals. Speak to a physician to determine if this medication could be right for you and your journey to stop drinking. 

Sources

NIAAA (2003) The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/134-142.htm

MedlinePlus (January 2021) Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000771.htm

Department of Health & Human Services (October 2004) Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.pdf

Oxford Academic (January 2009) The Korsakoff Syndrome. from https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/44/2/148/185585

CDC (January 2021) Alcohol and Public Health. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/data-stats.htm

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