Studies show that heavy drinking can lead to brain damage. The damage occurs after heavy drinking, and increases with each following day of heavy usage (fredjoiners, 2008). After long-term heavy alcohol use, individuals’ brains tend to shrink, more than there similarly aged counterparts. This shrinkage is especially pronounced in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for the higher cognitive functioning and abstract thought. While it takes an extended period of time for the brain to actually shrink, impairments of functioning may appear relatively quickly with heavy drinkers (Psychological Assessment Referral Treatment Services).
This brain shrinkage, commonly referred to as Korsakoff’s syndrome, “wet brain,” or “alcohol amnesic syndrome” is characterized by a decreased ability to learn new skills or retain new information, recalling the past since the onset of the disease or the very distant past, apathy, and confabulation: stories that they tell themselves or others to explain their lapses in memory or hospital stays (Alzheimer’s Society fact sheet used the example of someone saying they went to their aunt’s instead of the hospital for several weeks). They may be prone to talkative and repetitive behaviors. Korsakoff’s is often paired with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which appears first. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is characterized by difficulty controlling the eye muscles (paralyzed or involuntary) and poor motor skills, confusion, and drowsiness (Alzheimer’s Society, 2012).
When individuals are not getting enough thiamine, or vitamin B1, and are generally drinking large amounts of alcohol, they are vulnerable to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. When an individual shows signs of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, they should immediately seek medical care and will receive thiamine injections that will reverse the Wernicke’s encephalopathy without it advancing to Korsakoff’s. Once Korsakoff’s has taken hold, abstaining from drinking may help to reverse the symptoms fully or partially for 75% of individuals over a two year period. Some believe that thiamine shots facilitate recovery in sober Korsakoff patients (Alzheimer’s Society, 2012).
Korsakoff’s syndrome affects men ages 45 to 65 and women in a slightly lower age range, as women are more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol http://www.treatment4addiction.com/blog/tag/woman-and-alcohol-abuse/. In addition to the amount and frequency of alcohol usage, diet during use is considered a moderating factor. For individuals who are not eating enough nutrients when they are drinking heavily are more susceptible to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. For those over 40, the chances of returning entirely to normal brain structure after entering sobriety is less likely, but partial recovery with extended sobriety is probable (Psychological Assessment Referral Treatment Services ).
From examples in literature like Jimmie G. from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to my personal experiences in treatment from people who clearly were suffering from both Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsokoff’s syndrome, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome both scares me and reminds me to be grateful that I got sober young. It is a prevalent issue within the 12-step community.
Alzheimer’s Society. (2012). What is Korsakoff’s syndrome? Retrieved 2012, from Alzheimer’s-Society
fredjoiners. (2008, July 29). Alcohol Self-Help News. Retrieved 2012, from Alcohol Self-Help News
Psychological Assessment Referral Treatment Services . (n.d.). Consequences of Intoxication on Brain Structure and Function. Retrieved 2012, from Psychological Assessment Referral Treatment Services
Filed under: Addiction, Conditions and Disorders · Tags: Alcohol Abuse, Alcohol Addiction, alcoholism, brain damage, heavy alcohol use, Heavy drinking, Recovery, sobriety, thiamine, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, wet brain