Mason Researcher Investigates Traumatic Brain Injury in Abused Women
By Lisa M. Gerry
While Mason researcher Jessica Gill was earning a bachelor of science in nursing at Linfield College in Oregon, she began volunteering at a domestic violence shelter. It was there, during night shifts, that Gill noticed that many of the women weren’t sleeping, and often they would complain of feeling ill, even long after they were out of harm’s way.
“I thought there has to be something to that,” says Gill.
So, when she went to Oregon Health and Sciences University to work on a master’s degree in mental health and psychiatric nursing, she focused on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She later received a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and then spent three years doing postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health, studying PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) in military and civilian populations.
An assistant professor in Mason’s School of Nursing, Gill is partnering with Inova Health System and its sexual abuse program, to study the effect of traumatic brain injury on abused women. “I’m taking a lot of the ideas we had with service members and translating it to a civilian base,” she says. “And I’m going back to my passion for working with abused women.”
The types of injuries abused women incur—blunt force injuries, repeated and frequent head wounds, and anoxic injuries from strangulation—are similar to those of service members, as well as athletes. These events increase the risk of TBI.
Gill is studying the prevalence of TBI in women who have suffered abuse and how that manifests in physical symptoms. One way to measure that is by examining epigenetic modifications, which occur when the body tries to adapt to prolonged periods of extreme duress. “We’re looking at the pattern of those adaptations within the epigenetic code to understand the consequence of TBI and how that might relate to the symptoms that the individual is having.”
Gill also has applied for a grant so that she and her team, in collaboration with Inova, can try to develop a marker to approximate PTSD risk in individuals in an acute-care setting. “We get a lot of individuals who come in with traumatic injuries, rape, or assault, but we don’t yet know which individuals are at a higher risk for PTSD,” says Gill. “It’s really difficult to determine, so often patients are discharged with no follow-up.” This marker would help health care professionals gauge the patient’s risk.