Prof Studies White Matter for Insights into the Aging Brain

Dr. Kristen Kennedy is looking to the brain’s white matter for clues about how the brain changes as we age and why some people are able to maintain good cognitive health while others are not.

Nearly half the human brain is white matter, which consists of millions of bundles of nerve fibers that connect neurons in different brain regions into functional circuits.

Kennedy joined the UT Dallas faculty this year as an assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) and UT Dallas’ Center for Vital Longevity.

Kristen Kennedy

Dr. Kristen M. Kennedy

TITLE: Assistant Professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and Center for Vital Longevity

RESEARCH INTERESTS: Understanding how the brain and cognition change during healthy aging

PREVIOUSLY: Postdoctoral fellow, Center for Vital Longevity, UT Dallas

“White matter loses integrity as we age, but the brain is also really good at compensating for this,” said Kennedy. “Structural losses don’t necessarily translate to loss of brain function, which suggests that the aging brain is malleable and able to adapt in response to lost or weak neural connections.”

Kennedy began her career with a clinical focus, earning a master’s degree in clinical neuropsychology from Emporia State University in Kansas and her PhD in psychology from Wayne State University in Michigan. Her early studies used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as a tool to investigate age-related changes to the structure of the brain, and she quickly gravitated to the idea of using multimodal brain-imaging tools to examine the healthy brain structure’s role in how brain function changes over the lifespan.

“By gaining a better understanding of the healthy aging brain, we can better understand what goes wrong in diseases like Alzheimer’s and other dementias and gain insight into when and how we can best prevent or delay these devastating conditions,” Kennedy said.

In 2010, Kennedy received a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award — a highly competitive career-development grant from the National Institutes of Health. The award provides two years of postdoctoral support and three years of faculty research support, which gave her a jump start on getting her new research program under way. She is particularly enthusiastic about fostering collaborations with other aging and imaging experts at UT Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center, who have a wealth of clinical and basic research expertise.

Kennedy is also looking forward to teaching Functional Neuroanatomy, a course on the structure of the brain and how it is wired, during the spring 2013 semester. “It is fundamental knowledge you need to have in order to progress in any area of cognitive neuroscience,” she said.

Kennedy is eager to bring her experience in structural and functional neuroimaging to the course. “By pairing knowledge gained from traditional gross anatomy studies with insights gleaned from MRI and other technologies, we can gain a more complete understanding of the functioning human brain,” she said. She ultimately hopes to make the class interactive by incorporating virtual dissections now available as YouTube videos, 3D computer modeling, and tutorials on the latest brain-imaging software.

“Dr. Kennedy brings important new strengths to BBS and the Center for Vital Longevity,” said Dr. Bert Moore, dean of BBS. “Her innovative investigations correlating structural and functional changes in the brain as we age have provided important insights regarding the adaptive plasticity of the brain, as well as clues about the changes associated with disease and injury. Her research and training of our students complements our existing programs and we are very pleased to have her join our faculty.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].