Vitamin B1 is an essential B Complex vitamin that helps the body convert sugar into energy. Also know as Thiamine, it is an important ingredient for a healthy nervous system and proper brain functioning.
Thiamine can be found in pork, grain cereals, flour, rice and some types of beans. While insufficient levels aren’t common among most people in the U.S., alcoholics and others who abuse alcohol for long periods of time can be susceptible to a vitamin B1 deficiency. This can be problematic and cause neurological complications.
Korsakoff’s Syndrome is one such neurological disorder that is caused by a severe lack of Vitamin B1 (thiamine) in the brain.
Korsakoff’s Syndrome is believed to be the result of abusing alcohol over the course of many years. Named after Sergei Korsakoff, a Russian neuropsychiatrist who discovered the syndrome in the late 19th century, this neurological disorder is also commonly known as Korsakoff’s psychosis, alcoholic encephalopathy, or “wet brain.”
While Korsakoff syndrome is most commonly caused by years of abusing alcohol, it can also be associated with chronic infections, severe malabsorption, chronic illness, or after obesity (bariatric) surgery.
What Causes Korsakoff Syndrome?
Alcoholics can often become deficient in vitamin B1 (thiamine) because of poor eating habits, liver damage caused by drinking, or damaged gastro-intestinal systems that do not absorb nutrients properly.
Because chronic alcohol consumption inhibits the absorption of thiamine in the brain, and alcoholics generally neglect their diet due to a focus on consuming alcohol, both can result in a serious thiamine deficiency in the body.
Vitamin B1 is an essential nutrient for glucose conversion in the brain, and a thiamine deficiency overtime can lead to serious structural damage to the brain and significant brain cell death. This can cause serious damage to multiple nerve centers in the brain and spinal cord, as well as throughout the rest of the body.
Korsakoff syndrome is generally preceded by an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, which can cause life-threatening brain disruption, confusion, lack of coordination, abnormal involuntary eye movements, staggering, and stumbling.
However, Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are different conditions. Wernicke encephalopathy generally represents the first phase of this disorder – the “acute” phase.
Once the Wernicke symptoms begin to diminish, the second, “chronic” phrase begins to appear, also known as Korsakoff syndrome, or Korsakoff psychosis.
What are the Symptoms of Wet Brain?
Wet Brain, aka Korsakoff Syndrome, can cause devastating effects in the learning centers of the brain causing problems learning new information, inability to remember recent events, and a substantial long-term memory gap. While social skills may be relatively unaffected, memory problems may be severe.
Other symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:
- Inability to form new memories
- Making up stories to fill in the gaps of memory (confabulation)
- Seeing or hearing things that aren’t actually there
- Anterograde amnesia
- Retrograde amnesia
- Lack of insight
- Personality changes
- Lack of coordination
Treatment and Prevention of Wet Brain
Many patients suffering from early stages of Korsakoff syndrome may respond well to large doses of intravenous thiamine, and may see substantial improvements in their symptoms.
However, late stage patients will not see a large benefit from vitamin B1 injections, nor is there any available treatment at this time known to reverse this disorder when it reaches these late stages.
In order to prevent the onset of this disease, a person should limit their intake of alcohol as much as they can. They should also avoid the consumption of alcohol in large amounts.
It is also recommended that heavy drinkers should take oral supplements of thiamine and eat a balanced and healthy diet to help stave off this debilitating disorder.
It’s important to remember that Korsakoff syndrome can be treated if caught in the early stages of the disease. Some patients even attain a full recovery after sustained treatment.