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Mary Kennedy.

U professor Mary Kennedy works with graduate students to learn how traumatic brain injuries affect memory.

If memory serves me right...

From eNews, July 8, 2004

Ask people to name their favorite kind of movie and most will mention categories like adventures, dramas, horror films, comedies, or Westerns. But Mary Kennedy likes films about cognitive impairments. Kennedy, an assistant professor in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, is particularly fond of Memento, which tells the story of a man with severe memory loss. In his attempts to avenge his wife's death, he must rely on handwritten notes and other clues he's left for himself. "The science in the film was very sound, and I think it accurately reflects the reality of what it must be like to live with a severe memory impairment," says Kennedy, who manages the U's NeuroCognitive Communication Lab, which examines the relationship between language and memory. Trained as a clinical speech pathologist, Kennedy is interested in how traumatic brain injuries (TBI)--the result of a blow to the head that can result in confusion or loss of consciousness--affect memory. More than two million Americans are living with TBI, according to the national Brain Injury Association. Through her lab, Kennedy and several graduate students have tested TBI patients for their ability to remember unrelated word pairs. "We found that it's difficult for people with TBI to remember unrelated information," she says. "But when that task is put into a story, it's a little easier." Kennedy and her team also measure metacognition--or how you think about your own thinking. It's important, she says, for TBI patients to assess their particular ability to remember things: Will they recall the item they need when they get to the grocery store? Will they remember a doctor's appointment scheduled for next week? Discovering for themselves when their memory is often faulty, for example, makes patients are more likely to use written notes or other aids to jog their memory. Mnemonic devices (anything that helps your memory) are useful even to those of us without a head injury. Rhymes help us remember grammatical lists. Acronyms prompt our recollection of long titles. A simple sentence helps us remember the music scale. We make up stories to remember details that would otherwise evaporate from memory. The work of Kennedy's lab is ultimately aimed at examining techniques that can be applied toward therapies for TBI patients. "Rehabilitation professionals, neuropsychologists, and speech language pathologists don't have a tool that taps into [a patient's own] metacognitive activity, which is an important element in everyday decision-making," she explains. "We want to make rehab activities as close to real-life encounters as we can."

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