Kristen Kennedy

Kristen Kennedy

Kristen Kennedy

Alumna studies how healthy brains age

Most research on the brain focuses on age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. By comparison, little is known about how a healthy brain should age, even as modern medicine allows us to live so much longer. It’s why alumna Dr. Kristen Kennedy, Ph.D. ’07, now an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, decided to study the cognitive neuroscience of aging in graduate school and beyond.

“Given the rapid population increase, especially in the numbers of aging adults,” she says, “it seemed that this would be a much-needed population to study to investigate how the brain is supposed to age healthily.”

Kennedy was a Ph.D. student at the University of Memphis when her advisor, Dr. Naftali Raz, was given the opportunity to move to Wayne State to begin the Lifespan Cognitive Neuroscience program at the Institute of Gerontology. To continue her research with Raz, she transferred to Wayne State, a decision she doesn’t regret.  

“Being a part of the IOG shaped me into a well-rounded scientist,” Kennedy says, “because it was a truly interdisciplinary institute—on a daily basis I interacted with economists, sociologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, occupational and physical therapists—all focused on the study of aging.”

Raz’s lab focused on neuroimaging of the brain’s structure as it ages.  

As Kennedy prepared to propose her dissertation research topic, a new type of MRI technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging made its debut.   

“This new technique was exciting because it offered a way to image the white matter connections across the brain, which had never been possible in living humans until then.”

Inspired, her dissertation topic “focused on how the connectivity of the gray matter, by the white matter connections changed with age, and how those changes impacted different facets of our thinking—our memory, decision making, speed of thinking, and so on,” she says.

The technique has only improved in the last decade and is one Kennedy uses in her own lab to study the cognitive neuroscience of aging at UT Dallas’ Center for Vital Longevity today.

In her lab, students, postdocs and research volunteers obtain brain scans, administer neuropsychological tests to measure participants’ cognitive abilities, and process and analyze brain data, Kennedy says.  

Her work has earned her a role as a handling editor of the journal NeuroImage. The opportunity has not only granted her first looks at research breakthroughs but has shed light on the scientific publishing process.

Taking advantage of professional development opportunities outside the lab is something she recommends for current and aspiring graduate students—teach a class; review manuscripts; apply for grants; and present at research conferences.

“It may seem overwhelming at the time, and it is certainly not sustainable for a whole career, but during graduate school, I think it is worthwhile…to see the breadth of activities that go on in your future field.”