|The following is the opinion of Ivan F. Star Comes Out. All content © Native Sun News.
Whiteclay, Nebraska, a town just across the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation whose economy is based on selling alcohol to members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Photo from Ammodramus / Wikipedia
Alcohol: The most devastating weapon of all
By Ivan F. Star Comes Out
I paid a short visit to our courthouse and ended up with a task. So, this article is about a long-standing serious brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) which appears to afflict a significant percentage of tribal members. I am assuming that our courts have been overwhelmed with the debilitating, lethal, and terminal effects of this preventable disorder.
I have to say that transforming scientific research language into layman’s terms without distorting it was a challenge. I encourage readers to heed the fact that alcohol abuse plays a major role in this situation. It is most often used to cope with unresolved trauma symptoms and excessive alcohol use often leads to WKS. Most likely, this brain disorder has been around since alcohol was invented.
I for one can “see” the devastating impact on the collective future of the tribe. Our children’s future would be greatly enhanced if we as adults strive to become aware of this aspect of the syndrome, at least. To begin, I’ve separated the data, including causes and treatment, established by the two scientists for whom the disorder is named.
Carl Wernicke (1848-1905) was a German physician, anatomist, psychiatrist, and neuropathologist. His study of the nervous system and its disorders resulted in what is known today as Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. Essentially, he determined that a person’s mental state can be altered and is sometimes accompanied by physical changes. The majority of cases arose from infection, liver damage, anoxia (absence of oxygen), or kidney failure.
There are many types of brain diseases. Some are permanent and some are temporary. Some types are present at birth and never change, while others are acquired after birth and may get progressively worse. Permanent brain damage and dysfunction are caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, such as when a fetus is exposed to alcohol in the womb.
Wernicke determined that brain malfunction is a result of a thiamin (vitamin B-1) deficiency and that long-term alcohol abuse and poor food absorption often caused the vitamin B-1 deficiency. In some cases of oxygen deprivation, a person may slip into a coma and may be ultimately placed on life support to keep him or her alive.
An oxygen-deprived person may endure memory loss and difficulty focusing or have trouble with problem-solving skills and usually does not notice the change (s) while others do. Some identified symptoms of this life-altering brain dysfunction are, confusion, staggering and stumbling, lack of coordination, being overly outgoing and chatty, and abnormal involuntary eye movements.
Diagnosis and treatment must be performed by a qualified physician. Tests could include blood tests, spinal taps, computed tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the brain and electroencephalogram (EEG). All these tests basically measure electrical activity in the brain.
Treatment varies according to cause and may consist of medications or medications/surgery. Nutritional supplements may be prescribed to slow the damage to the brain, and/or special diet to treat underlying causes. Avoiding excess alcohol, reducing exposure to toxic substances, a healthy diet, and seeing the doctor regularly are common treatments.
Sergei Korsakoff (1854-1900) was the first professor of Psychiatry in Russia and founder of the Moscow School of Psychiatry. He entered a university at the age of 16, became a physician at a mental hospital and studied nervous and mental diseases. His thesis “About alcohol paralysis” earned him his Doctorate at age 33 in 1887.
His studies revealed that chronic memory disorder is caused by a severe deficiency of thiamine (Vitamin B-1). It is most commonly caused by alcohol abuse, but certain other conditions also can cause the disease. In other words, excessive alcohol use is the leading cause of severe mental illness.
Thiamine helps brain cells produce energy from sugar. When levels fall too low, brain cells cannot generate enough energy to function properly. This syndrome can also be associated with AIDS, chronic infections, poor nutrition and certain other conditions.
Scientists don’t yet know why heavy drinking causes severe thiamine (vitamin B-1) deficiency in some alcoholics, while others may be affected primarily by alcohol’s effects on the liver, stomach, heart, intestines, or other body systems. Also anorexia (loss of appetite), overly-stringent dieting, fasting, starvation, weight-loss surgery, uncontrolled vomiting, AIDS, kidney dialysis, chronic infections, or cancer that has spread throughout the body may lead to the syndrome.
Korsakoff’s research has shown that severe thiamine deficiency disrupts several biochemical functions that play key roles in carrying signals among brain cells and in storing and retrieving memories. This disruption destroys brain cells and causes widespread microscopic bleeding and scar tissue. Symptoms are marked by degeneration of normal intellectual and social functioning and complete or partial withdrawal from reality.
Symptoms include an inability to learn new information, short- and long-term memory gaps. The syndrome is characterized by disorientation and a tendency to invent explanations to cover a loss of memory. This is called “confabulating” or making up information they can’t remember. The person is not lying but may totally believe his or her invented explanations.
Experts recommend that heavy drinkers and others at risk of thiamine deficiency take oral supplements of thiamine and other vitamins strictly under a doctor’s supervision. Some heavy drinkers have been injected with thiamine until the clinical picture shows improvement. Then a person must be evaluated to determine development of WKS.
For our tribal education administrators, I implore you to stop jumping through those federal hoops for whatever reasons and see that it has not worked. Instead prepare our youth for their future. For our legislators, awareness of the many issues affecting the Pine Ridge will certainly lead to informed decisions.
Ancient Lakota philosophy has been communicated to us by Tatanka Iyutaka (Sitting Bull) to work today to establish a foundation conducive to a better future for our children.
(Ivan F. Star Comes Out, POB 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448; firstname.lastname@example.org)
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