Research explores brain injury in women exposed to domestic violence

A Kelowna couple is researching the prevalence of brain injuries in women who have experienced violence from an intimate partner.

Karen Mason is the executive director at Kelowna Women's Shelter and her partner, Paul van Donkelaar, is the director in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at UBC Okanagan, specializing in traumatic brain injury.

Together, they plan to explore how domestic violence injuries affect survivors.

"We don't have any form of formal assessment when women come in to Kelowna Women's Shelter to look for brain injury or concussion," Mason said.

"But we see in the course of many women's stay with us that they have additional challenges," Mason said.

Many of the women who come to the shelter show signs of depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder as a result of trauma.

They also showed cognitive problems, prompting Mason to wonder if this was the bigger problem.

Similar symptoms

"I think there are a number of women in intimate partner violence situations who understand that they have limits, wonder why they can't accomplish some of the things they want to in moving forward, and may not even know they've suffered a brain injury," Mason said.

"To have that confirmed and to understand it, they can put a name on it, and move forward and get some treatment is a really big deal."

Many of the symptoms that are present in patients with PTSD can overlap with those experienced after a concussion, van Donkelaar explained to Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

He compares this new study to information found in military research, which looks into soldiers who were exposed to improvised explosive devices.

Focus on memory

One challenge they confronted is that in most cases, there are no witnesses except the abuser and the victim.

The pair will be using a questionnaire developed by a colleague at Harvard University researching similar topics to assess the brain function and symptoms of each participant in the study. But it relies solely on the women's recollection of events.

The pair hopes to finish their research by next spring.  

With files from the CBC's Daybreak South

To hear the full interview listen to audio labelled Kelowna researchers explore impact of concussions in women exposed to intimate partner violence