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The Effects of Impaired Liver Function Upon the Brain

By Sharon Perkins ; Updated August 14, 2017

Heavy drinking leads to liver damage. Because the liver is so important to keep the body functioning, anything that affects the liver also influences other body systems. Liver disease can have a profound effect on brain function, allowing harmful chemical byproducts such as ammonia and manganese, which are normally eliminated from the body by the liver, to accumulate in the blood and pass through to the brain, according to Roger Butterworth, director of the Neuroscience Research Unit at the University of Montreal.

Hepatic Encephalopathy

Encephalopathy means brain disease. Hepatic encephalopathy is brain damage from liver causes; symptoms include behavior changes, confusion, a change in sleep patterns (night-day reversal is common) poor judgment and slow speech and movement. A hand flapping movement called asterixis or trembling hands can occur, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Depression and anxiety are also common side effects. Hepatic encephalopathy can progress to coma and death.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is brain damage that results from low thiamine levels caused by damage to the liver from alcohol use. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is caused by a lack of thiamine, or B1; thiamine is necessary for proper functioning of the nervous system. Thiamine absorption is affected by heavy alcohol intake. According to the NIAA, up to 80 percent of all alcoholics develop a thiamine deficiency.

Although Wernicke's Syndrome and Korsokoff's psychosis are often described as two different diseases, the National Institute of Health (NIH) states that Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis are two stages of the same syndrome, and so should combined into one entity, Wernicke-Korskoff Syndrome. The symptoms of Korsokoff’s begin as the symptoms of Wernicke’s start to pass, according to the NIH.The NIAA states that Korsakoff’s Syndrome affects up to 90 percent of people with Wernicke’s; Wernicke’s Syndrome is characterized by difficulty walking, extreme confusion, coordination issues and paralysis of the muscles that move the eyeballs. Not all people will exhibit the same symptoms to the same degree.

People with Korsakoff’s Syndrome, also known as Korsokoff’s psychosis, have severe memory loss and coordination issues. They may make up stories to compensate for things they can’t remember (confabulation) and may suffer from hallucinations.

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Blackouts

Blackouts occur when large amounts of alcohol are consumed very quickly, according to Aaron White, Ph.D., assistant research professor at the Duke University Department of Psychiatry. Blackouts affect memory formation, wiping out entire or just bits and pieces of past events. Drinkers don’t remember the activities they engaged in, many of which are dangerous or out of character for them, such as sleeping with strangers or driving recklessly.

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