Concussion research focuses on the unique and exacerbated brain injuries sustained through intimate partner violence

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious issue that affects people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds. The vast majority of people who experience this type of harm, however, are women. Stats Canada reports that more than 40 per cent of women in Canada have experienced IPV, and the rates are even higher for Indigenous women, 2SLGBTQIA+ people, and women living with disabilities.

Brain injury is one of the most significant challenges IPV survivors face, and it’s also one of the most common. Evidence suggests that up to 90 per cent of IPV survivors experience some sort of brain injury, ranging from concussion to severe head injury. Yet IPV brain injuries are still not always acknowledged in clinical settings. They also remain largely understudied, despite a recent surge in concussion-related research.

imageDr. Brian Christie (pictured right) and co-investigator Dr. Sandy Shultz (pictured below left) are helping to change this reality by researching brain injury specifically in the context of IPV, and a recent Catalyst Grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will allow them to continue their work.

With this grant, the Christie and Shultz labs will use a unique pre-clinical model to looks at how factors common in IPV—concussion (mild traumatic brain injury, or mTBI), non-fatal strangulation (NFS), and stress—can individually and in combination affect a survivor’s brain biology, blood biomarkers, and functionality.

In IPV, the concussion often occurs in combination with strangulation, which restricts blood and oxygen supply to the brain, and extreme stress, which also impacts the brain,” says Shultz. “So, there are actually multiple forms of brain injury occurring in IPV, and these different forms of brain injury can involve different and/or overlapping biological changes.”

Shultz also notes that this multilayered combination of mTBI, NFS, and extreme stress make IPV brain injuries unique and is one of the reasons why recent mTBI research focused on athletes and military personnel may not be applicable to IPV survivors.


Christie and Shultz predict they will observe a range of biological changes in their pre-clinical IPV model, and that these could contribute to impaired brain function. These changes include damage to the brain’s blood vessel network, neuroinflammation, and injury of axons, which are the thin fibers at the end of neurons that facilitate communication within the brain and between the brain and rest of the body. Christie and Shultz also hope to identify a blood biomarker, a blood-borne molecule that would indicate someone has experienced an IPV brain injury.

Along with possibly leading to future treatment studies, the researchers say observing and developing an improved understanding of these changes and blood biomarker could lead to more objective ways to diagnose IPV brain injuries.

“Diagnosis of concussion is already challenging because it often relies on self-reported, subjective, and non-specific symptoms. In IPV, this is even more challenging because the patient may be unwilling or hesitant to self-report out of fear of the perpetrator,” Shultz explains. 

The grant for this work was awarded through the National Women’s Health Research Initiative (NWHRI), which is led by the CIHR, the Institute of Gender and Health, and Women and Gender Equality Canada. The NWHRI aims to advance research addressing under-researched and high-priority areas of women's health, improving care and health outcomes for women, girls, and gender-diverse people.  

Christie and Shultz say the grant will support the hire of a new postdoctoral fellow for this research, as well as partially support the IPV research already started by PhD student Justin Brand (Christie and Shultz labs).