UAMS Neuropsychologist subspecializes in epilepsy and evaluating brain surgery risks.
Even as a child growing up in Signal Mountain, Tenn., Jennifer Gess, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at the University for Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), was fascinated with the biology of human behavior. What makes us tick? How does human memory work? How does the brain dictate behavior?
"What makes the cognitive abilities and behavior of different individuals distinct is just fascinating to me," Gess said. "There has been a lot of development and movement in learning about human memory including how people learn new information, how they hold on to it, how they retrieve it, and all the things that can go wrong. The nuances to memory help us better understand the disorders that exist that impair memory such as dementia."
There are a couple different reasons patients seek help from the UAMS specialist. One, they have a known injury or condition that has affected the brain.
"We are asked to determine how that has affected someone's ability to learn, pay attention, reason, and use language," she said. "We use that information to help guide their decisions about living independently, going back to work, and rehabilitation.
"The second type of referral is for people who are noticing changes in cognition. The most typical one is an older person coming in whose memory is declining. Then we evaluate and consider what is possibly causing this condition."
It is often frightening just to visit a neuropsychologist for an evaluation. But, for some people, it can be reassuring.
"Sometimes regarding memory testing, people are just where they should be considering their age," she said. "In that case, we can allay the concerns of people who are worried about changes in their memory. It is scary because it is different from when you were younger. But changes can be a normal result of aging, and not a sign of dementia."
Some people may be concerned they are at higher risk for Alzheimer's disease because of a family history of the disease. But she assures them that while that can be a factor, it doesn't mean the patient will get Alzheimer's - which is just one of many types of dementia.
The third type of referral is for someone who is preparing for neurosurgery, and the neuropsychologist helps assess risks to provide insight into whether the patient should go forward with a particular type of surgery. Gess has subspecialties in epilepsy and evaluating risks before brain surgery. She helps assess the risks before surgeries such as focal resection or device implantation to manage epilepsy or movement disorders.
Gess loves meeting every patient. Each one comes in with a different history. Everyone is unique and different.
"We want to make sure before they go to surgery that we have an understanding of what we can do to preserve memory," Gess said. "If you have a certain kind of surgery, what are the risks of having a significant change in your memory or language? We access cognition broadly. There are different surgical options for folks we consider at serious risk. We work closely with the neurologist and surgeon to help them choose the most effective and safe surgery."
Gess is also director of psychology training at UAMS. She directs training programs for anyone earning a doctoral degree in psychology or neuropsychology.
"I get to work with these amazing students and that keeps my learning fresh," Gess said. "You learn by teaching. And they teach me. They are just out of grad school, so we learn together if there is something new."
Gess initially earned a BA and MA in biomedical ethics from the University of Virginia where she had an internship on a neurology unit at the National Institutes of Health. The field was pretty new at that point. She had never heard of it.
"I followed a neuropsychologist around and was fascinated," Gess said. "I was very interested in the brain, but also human behavior, so neuropsychology was the perfect marriage of those two interests. I ended up switching careers. I went to Georgia State University where I received an MA and PhD in clinical neuropsychology."
Gess completed a clinical internship in neuropsychology at the University of Arizona and neuropsychology fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta where she also accepted her first faculty position. Tiring of a commute in Atlanta that could eat up three hours a day, she and her husband, Dr. Peter Gess, launched a nationwide search for new jobs and a new home.
"We didn't know anything about Little Rock, but we had heard nice things, came over to interview and absolutely fell in love," Gess said. "My husband was hired at Hendrix College and I joined UAMS. It was pretty easy to attract us here because of how livable the city is, and the reasonable cost of living."
Her husband is associate provost at Hendrix where he is also associate professor in the Department of Politics.
She loves UAMS and the people she works with. Being at a smaller academic medical center, Gess has found there is much more collaboration.
"It makes it such a fun place to work because I'm working with people as energized as I am in a state with need for innovation and new medical programs," Gess said. "UAMS has an incredibly gifted group of clinicians. I feel I can make a more significant difference than I might at a larger institution where you are more like a cog in the wheel. And it is so nice not to think about traffic."
Gess has been board certified by the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology since 2009 and serves on the American Psychological Association's national education committee for training in neuropsychology.
Because of her roots growing up on a mountain in Tennessee, she is most at home when in the woods. "We have a small place near Mountain View that is my happy place," she said. "My husband and I enjoy hiking and backpacking when we can, in addition to spending time with our two children and two dogs. Our son, Simon, is in the 11th grade, and our daughter, Madeleine, is a freshman at Louisiana State University in the pre-veterinary medicine programs."