Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

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Years of excessive alcohol use. There are different types of brain damage; people may begin showing symptoms of this disease as early as age 40 or 50. 

A common difference between ARBD and Alzheimers or dementia is that this group of brain disorders often does not progressively get worse like a traditional Alzheimers disorder. Suppose a person with an alcohol-use disorder starts to recognize the symptoms of ARBD and seeks treatment immediately. In that case, there is a chance that symptoms may be reversed if intervention is provided early. However, if excessive alcohol use is continued, significant brain damage can occur, sometimes leading to death if not treated. 

Let’s learn more about alcohol-related brain damage, how alcohol affects the brain long term, and the treatment available for alcohol-related brain damage. 

If you are struggling to recall information, losing track of time, and concerned that you may have dementia related to your alcohol use, please contact us today. The team at Guardian Recovery has extensive expertise in treating addiction. There may be time to reverse the progression of a disease or prevent symptoms from worsening if you seek treatment now. Choosing to seek treatment is a significant decision, and Guardian Recovery is here to guide you at every step. Contact us to learn more about our substance treatment programs, medically-supervised detox, addiction therapy, and insurance programs, or schedule a pre-admission assessment. Our goal is to provide premier quality care to clients and their families. We genuinely care about your future and take the time to encourage growth and prevent relapse.

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What Part of the Brain is Affected by Alcohol?

People who drink alcohol excessively for extended periods may develop a Thiamine deficiency, also known as B1 deficiency. This nutrient is an essential factor in healthy brain functioning. Research indicates that up to 80% of people with an alcohol-use disorder have a Thiamine deficiency. 

It is the cerebellum that is the most impacted by chronic alcohol use. The cerebellum is responsible for coordinating movement, certain types of learning, and balance. This is the part of the brain that thiamine deficiency primarily impacts and the area that sees the most long-term damage. 

In addition to the cerebellum, excessive alcohol use over time can damage white matter in the brain, causing it to shrink in size. This impacts the corpus callosum and subcortical white matter. These brain structure changes affect one’s ability to think, solve problems, use working memory, and put things in order. 

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain in the Long Term?

Long-term alcohol use can impact the brain by causing damage to the structure of the brain and limiting an essential vitamin for functioning, Thiamine or B1. Symptoms of brain damage may progress from mild to severe. Here are the signs to look for when a person may be impacted by alcohol-related brain damage. 

Signs of Early Stage Dementia:

  • Memory problems.
  • Difficulty thinking things through.
  • Trouble identifying words during a conversation. 
  • Getting lost easily.
  • Visual perception challenges. 
  • Mood changes. 

Signs of Mid-Stage Dementia:

  • Memory and cognition will worsen.
  • People may forget what they were saying mid-sentence.
  • Difficulty understanding speech.
  • Orientation issues-not recognizing the time of day and confusion where they are. 
  • Symptoms of depression and anxiety continue.
  • Delusions and paranoia may become more pronounced.
  • Visual hallucinations can occur. 
  • Agitation and restlessness.
  • Disturbed sleep patterns.
  • Difficulties using the toilet.

Signs of End Stage Dementia:

  • People may believe they are in an earlier period of life. 
  • Language is limited to only a few words. 
  • Depression.
  • Delusions and hallucinations. 
  • Aggression.
  • Slower movements.
  • Increased risk of falls.
  • Need help with eating.
  • Trouble controlling bladder and bowels.

Alcohol-Related Brain Diseases

There are different conditions associated with ARBD. Each variation may have other signs and symptoms associated. 

Types of Alcohol-Related Brain Diseases:

  • Alcohol-related dementia.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury.
  • Alcohol-related stroke. 
  • Other rarer forms of ARBD. 

The two primary causes of alcohol-induced dementia are ARBD and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. If treated early, there may be some recovery if alcohol is stopped entirely and treatment provided as soon as signs are observed. 

What Is Alcohol-Induced Dementia?

Alcoholic Dementia is a type of brain damage caused by drinking too much alcohol for many years. This type of dementia can impact a person’s ability to function in daily life. It can affect a person’s ability to maintain finances or even cook a meal. A person with this disease may have trouble recalling a memory or working through a multi-step task. 

Symptoms of Alcoholic Dementia: 

  • Distractability during a task.
  • Difficulty problem-solving.
  • Difficulty with organization.
  • Trouble with judgment/decision-making.
  • Emotional outbursts.
  • Lack of motivation with daily tasks.
  • Problem with social awareness or empathy toward others.

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What Is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)?

Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome is similar to Alcoholic Dementia and is also caused by excessive alcohol. The specific way alcohol creates this brain damage is lacking vitamin Thiamine (vitamin B1). Alcohol prevents the body from absorbing this vitamin and impacts the brain’s function leaving significant damage. 

There are two stages to this disease. First, a person will experience intense brain inflammation. This is described as Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. If treatment is not provided during this time, a more severe and long-lasting condition called Korsakoff’s Syndrome can develop. This is a more pronounced version of dementia. 

Wernicke Encephalopathy (WE)

It is the first part of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. The primary component of this stage of the disease is severe brain inflammation. It is essential to recognize the signs of this disease to seek treatment and reduce long-lasting effects. 

Symptoms of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy:

  • Disoriented, confused, or mild memory loss.
  • Difficulty controlling eye movements.
  • Poor balance or walking with legs out. 
  • Being malnourished.

If a person appears to have one or more of these symptoms, it is essential to go to the hospital. Alcohol use should be stopped immediately. Medical treatment includes high doses of Thiamine and other B vitamins to improve patient outcomes and avoid the risk of permanent brain damage or death. 

Korsakoff Syndrome (KS)

Korsakoff’s Syndrome is the advancement of the disease once a person has experienced Wernicke’s Encephalopathy and has not received treatment to reduce inflammation. Once a person has reached this stage of disease, it is much more difficult to heal the damage that has occurred, and a person’s symptoms become more pronounced. 

Symptoms of Korsakoff’s Syndrome:

  • Confusion and memory loss.
  • Repeated questions.
  • Difficulty learning new skills.
  • Lack of emotions or personality changes.
  • Lack of insight. 
  • Creation of false memories.
  • Concentration problems.

A patient with Korsakoff’s Syndrome will also require long-term treatment to help the individual cope with memory loss and permanent damage. 

Causes of WKS

The only cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a vitamin Thiamine/B1 deficiency. An alcohol-use disorder is not always the primary cause but can also be attributed to dietary deficiencies, prolonged vomiting, eating disorders, or the effects of chemotherapy. 

What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Alcoholic neuropathy, like all other alcohol-related brain diseases, is caused by excessive use of alcohol for a prolonged period. It is described as a burning sensation in the nerves. It is not well known, but there are some theories about how alcohol causes nerve damage. One idea is that alcohol puts stress on the nerves and spinal cord. It is also believed that the nutritional deficiency of thiamine and B1 may lead to neuropathy. Treatment recommendations are the same as WKS, such as eliminating alcohol and high doses of Thiamine and other B vitamins to improve patient symptoms. 

Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy

It is believed that neuropathy symptoms may not appear until many years of chronic alcohol use. Symptoms can progress, impacting sensory, motor, and gait functions. Neuropathy primarily consists of a burning, painful sensation. However, later it can move to weakness in one’s extremities. This impacts a person’s gait over the months and years. 

What Is Alcoholic Cerebellar Degeneration?

Alcoholic Cerebellar Degeneration is another form of brain damage caused by one’s severe alcohol-use disorder. This damage impacts the nerves in the back of the brain, also known as the cerebellum. 

Cerebellar Degeneration can result from alcohol use disorder and vitamin deficiencies of B1 or Thiamine. Alcohol or nutrition-related Cerebellar Degeneration occurs during middle age. Research suggests that 12-27% with alcoholism will develop a form of Cerebellar Degeneration. 

Symptoms of Alcoholic Cerebellar Degeneration

Symptoms of Cerebellar Degeneration May Include:

  • Balance problems.
  • Decreased muscle tone.
  • Double vision.
  • Poor muscle coordination.
  • Problems holding head or limbs up.
  • Tremors.
  • Unsteady gait.

What Is Marchiafava-Bignami Disease?

Marchiafava-Bignami Disease is a rare disorder caused by significant alcohol use and primarily the degeneration of the part of the brain known as the corpus callosum. As previously mentioned, brain damage caused by alcohol is believed to be due to a significant lack of B vitamins. The severity of symptoms is profound, and even with treatment, most likely, the person will likely die from this disease. 

Symptoms of Marchiafava-Bignami Disease

As with many neurological conditions, this disease can be acute, subacute, or chronic. 

Common Symptoms of Marchiafava-Bignami Disease: 

  • Dementia.
  • Trouble speaking.
  • Spastic muscle movements. 
  • Inability to walk. 
  • Lack of consciousness.
  • Seizures.
  • Coma.

Treatment for Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Knowing that alcohol is the leading contributor to alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), the most important thing you can do is to abstain from alcohol use entirely.

 In addition, please seek medical care to assess the damage and identify what you may need to improve or reduce the progression of the disease. As stated, partial or perhaps even full recovery is possible if treatment is made early. However, if alcohol use continues and symptoms progress past a certain point, the prognosis for a complete recovery diminishes. 

It may be necessary for individuals with ARBD to seek medical detoxification. At Guardian Recovery, we combine medication-assisted treatment (MAT) options, around-the-clock medical supervision, and a range of specialized addiction services to provide the most comprehensive and individualized alcohol detox program. 

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Are you concerned about Alcohol-Related Brain Damage? You should reach out immediately if you have identified symptoms mentioned in this article. The best way to improve your health is to seek addiction treatment. We have the expertise to manage all aspects of health. When you contact our Treatment Advisor, you can complete the intake process within 15 minutes. We will provide a complimentary assessment and free insurance benefit check for you. Call now and begin your journey toward wellness. 

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  1. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm#:~:text=The%20cerebellum%2C%20an%20area%20of,association%20with%20chronic%20alcohol%20consumption.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513685/
  3. https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/types-dementia/alcohol-related-brain-damage-arbd#:~:text=Alcohol%2Drelated%20brain%20damage%20(ARBD)%20is%20a%20brain%20disorder,between%20about%2040%20and%2050.
  4. https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/types-dementia/alcohol-related-dementia
  5. https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/types-dementia/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome#content-start
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3370340/
  7. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22636-cerebellar-degeneration
  8. https://radiopaedia.org/articles/alcoholic-cerebellar-degeneration?lang=us
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4031867/#:~:text=Marchiafava%2DBignami%20disease%20is%20a,alcoholics%20but%20are%20chronically%20malnourished.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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