When we talk of treatment and recovery from brain damage and syndromes caused by alcohol, abstinence is the only way out!
Recovery of the brain, its metabolic functions, blood flow ? even reversal of brain shrinkage to some extent ? can take place with only a few weeks of abstinence from alcohol. However, going back to drinking causes resumption of brain damage – shrinkage, decline in blood flow, metabolic and cognitive functions.
While brain damage (physical) and impairment in cognitive functioning (memory, learning and other higher level functions), caused by excessive drinking can be reversed, some may become permanent. Having said this, one of the reasons why some brain damage can be reversed, whilst some become irreversible, is because, to a large extent, this depends on when corrective action is taken. The earlier an individual seeks treatment and takes remedial action, e.g. making healthy lifestyle changes like controlling drinking and eating healthily, the better the chances of recovery.
When done in time ? especially during the early stages ? abstaining from alcohol, improving diet and replacing vitamins depleted from the body due to heavy drinking, as well as cognitive remediation can all help the brain recuperate from alcohol’s adverse affects and regain its lost abilities. When excessive drinking continues and goes unchecked, however, it may result in irreversible, permanent damage to the brain and the development of serious brain disorders or syndromes like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and dementia.
These disorders cause progressive debilitation and can eventually even cause death in the affected individual. There is no cure once these disorders develop and as they progress, the chances of recovery only decrease. Treatment concentrates on controlling disease symptoms and preventing or slowing progression the of disease. Progressive loss of brain function and peripheral nerve damage that takes place in these disorders can be prevented with total abstinence from alcohol and a well-balanced, nourishing diet.
Treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and dementia involves abstinence from alcohol, a healthy diet and the replacement of essential vitamins such as vitamin B1 (thiamine) and other B-complex vitamins that have been depleted from the body.
With timely treatment, some symptoms such as confusion, coordination and vision problems (comprising the initial or Wernicke’s phase) can be controlled, whilst some, especially memory (characteristic of the advanced or Korsakoff phase) may be permanent. Whilst vitamin B1 is known to restore certain brain functions, such as memory (recalling past events) and learning (storing new information), it may not be able to improve the cognitive symptoms of memory in the Korsakoff phase of this disorder. However, it is useful in improving other disease symptoms, such as confusion/delirium, vision and eye movement problems, as well as muscle coordination.
It could take up to two years for the person to recover from alcohol-induced disorders. Some individuals may recover completely, whilst others may not recover at all. Most, however, make at least a partial recovery.
The involvement and support of friends and family is necessary and can greatly help in making treatment more effective. Support is essential when the individual is undergoing treatment, and even more so once it is over. When treatment is over and these individuals recover, they usually need help with managing their lives. It is here that family and friends can play an important role in helping them cope better and prevent chances of relapse.
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