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Domestic violence is now recognized as a leading cause of traumatic brain injury

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Domestic violence is now recognized as a leading cause of traumatic brain injury, and there are hints that this kind of physical abuse produces a distinct pattern of damage in the brain. NPR's Jon Hamilton has been reporting on this research. He joins us now. First, though, a warning - this conversation will include some graphic descriptions of physical violence.

Jon, how common are these traumatic brain injuries?

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Unfortunately, very common - there was a national survey a few years ago, and it found that about 1 in 3 women has, at some point in her life, experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner. Researchers say that most of these women have also had at least one concussion or what a doctor would call a mild traumatic brain injury. And of course, men and nonbinary people are also affected by this sort of violence. So in all, we're talking about millions of people.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. I mean, that makes a lot of sense. We hear a lot about these kind of injuries in sports. Are the ones that occur in the home that much different?

HAMILTON: Well, they probably are. The way they occur is certainly different. So a boxer might take a punch to the head, and a football player may collide with somebody. But when one person assaults another, there are lots of ways that damage can occur. I spoke with a woman named Maria Garay-Serratos, who grew up in a violent home, and she described just some of the ways she saw her father abuse her mom.

MARIA GARAY-SERRATOS: There was choking. There was a lot of shaking, objects thrown at her, shoved against the wall, thrown against appliances, dragged by her hair in the yard.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, see, that's shocking - and different from what we see, say, on the football field. So I wonder if that means that the brain damage from these assaults is also different.

HAMILTON: Well, it looks like it can be. And shaking, for example, can lead to this sort of whiplash injury in the brain. If somebody throws a glass bottle, say, it can fracture the skull and damage a specific brain area. And choking - it cuts off the blood supply to the brain and damages blood vessels, and that can result in a brain injury that is a whole lot like a stroke.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it possible to look at an injured brain and tell whether the cause was probably domestic violence?

HAMILTON: Not yet, but there are some researchers who think domestic abuse may leave this sort of signature in the brain. One of those scientists is named Dr. Rebecca Folkerth. She's with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City. And she was part of a study that looked at the brains of women who had died with a documented history of intimate partner violence. And she told me that those brains didn't look like the ones from athletes who've taken a lot of blows to the head.

REBECCA FOLKERTH: And it suggests that, while they are getting repetitive brain injuries, it's of a different sort.

MARTÍNEZ: Why have we heard so much about traumatic brain injuries in contact sports, just like football, but not in this particular setting?

HAMILTON: There are a couple of reasons. I mean, one is that when a boxer or a football player takes a hit to the head, you know, it's seen by so many people - sometimes millions on TV. But violence in the home is often invisible, and it tends to go unreported. There's still a lot of stigma. People who have been abused often fear that reporting what happened will lead to more violence. There's another reason, though, and that is that there just hasn't been that much research on head injuries from domestic violence. And the good news is that that is starting to change.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Jon Hamilton. Jon, thanks.

HAMILTON: You're welcome, A.

MARTÍNEZ: And if you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Their website is thehotline.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.