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Alcoholic encephalopathy is brain damage caused by a thiamine deficiency. It is one of the most severe effects of long-term alcohol addiction. People with this condition are known to suffer from memory loss, permanent brain damage and a unique form of psychosis known as Korsakoff psychosis.
Also known as Wernicke’s disease or Wernicke-Korsakoff, alcoholic encephalopathy is characterized by hallucinations, double vision, a loss of smell, an unsteady gait and a severe loss of memory. Due to gaps in memory, a person with this condition may also be prone to make up stories and events in an attempt to camouflage a loss of recall. A person with alcoholic encephalopathy may also lose the ability to grasp new memories, which are necessary in the acquiring of learning new skills or the acquiring of new information.
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, is crucial to the brain’s normal functioning. Heavy alcohol use interrupts the body’s absorption of thiamine and, thus, creates a deficiency leading to brain impairment. Although supplemental doses of thiamine may help reverse some of the damage suffered from a deficiency, it does not eliminate all of the symptoms, such as memory loss.
The full effect of alcoholic encephalopathy tends to take place in two distinct stages. The first, known as Wernicke’s symptoms, occur during the acute phase of this condition and are characterized by symptoms such as gaps in memory and a loss of balance. The second stage, known as Korsakoff symptoms, is the chronic phase of this illness, which is characterized by a marked decrease in a person’s attention span, increased confusion, agitated behavior and impaired motor functioning. It is only after the onset and decline of acute Wernicke’s symptoms that chronic Korsakoff symptoms begin.
Alcoholic encephalopathy may still occur in individuals who attempt to eat balanced meals, but who continue to abuse alcohol. Long-term alcohol abuse impedes the body’s ability to properly absorb and assimilate thiamine normally found in food. Without proper absorption and assimilation, brain damage may still occur.
Alcoholic encephalopathy does not occur in all heavy alcohol users. Those afflicted with it, however, are sometimes permanently affected by its onset. Alcoholic encephalopathy can be treated if it is detected in its early stages, although a person may not recover from all of its effects. It is irreversible, however, if left untreated and if the person continues to consume alcohol. In many cases, alcoholic encephalopathy can even lead to coma and death.