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The Brainiac

December 9, 2016

Photo of Professor Jessica Brown

Photo of Professor Jessica Brown
Photo: Matthew Weber, CLAgency student

One of the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences’ newest faculty members, Jessica Brown, is making waves in the areas of traumatic brain injury and augmentative alternative communication, especially in the ways these affect student athletes.

Brown always knew that she was interested in the brain. In high school she learned about the field of speech pathology, which directed her into the field of speech-language-hearing sciences. She received her bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois and then continued directly into her master’s and PhD at the University of Nebraska. At Nebraska, Brown worked on several research projects, including a “Return to Learn” grant that helped students get back to school and learning after suffering a TBI. After completing her PhD, Brown immediately got a job teaching here at the University of Minnesota. Her academic interests include cognition, acquired brain injuries (stroke and traumatic brain injury or TBI), visual processing, functional rehabilitation and assessment, and augmentative and alternative forms of communication (AAC) for individuals with aphasia.

Dr. Brown teaches multiple courses in SLHS, including Introduction to Neuroscience for Human Communication, Language and Cognitive Disorders in Adults, and a graduate seminar on TBI. Additionally Brown has her own research lab and was recently awarded three research grants including a Center for Applied and Translational Sensory Science (CATSS) grant, a CLA Academic Innovation grant, and a University Grand Challenges grant.

The CATSS grant enabled Brown and one of her graduate students to work on an eye-tracking project. Through this project, Brown asks people who have suffered TBIs to read sentences and match them to pictures in order to evaluate how individuals with brain injuries attend to text and images. These displays are often used as cognitive supports for people with TBI and understanding how this population processes these materials is important for clinicians. 

The CLA Academic Innovation grant has provided Brown with the finances to purchase augmentative alternative communication (AAC) equipment to use in classes with graduate students. This equipment will provide students with hands-on experience and it also will be used in the Julia M. Davis Speech-Language-Hearing Center, allowing the clinic to cater to the needs of individuals with ALS, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and other genetic disorders. 

The University’s Grand Challenges grant is designed to elevate interdisciplinary research strengths for greater impact on the critical societal issues facing our state and the world. As a small department at the University, SLHS was proud to have three recipients of this grant. Dr. Brown is working with a team of other University professors who specialize in neurology, neuro-law, and legislation and practice. This team is working to evaluate and add to the state legislature laws in place regarding returning to school and sports following a concussion in young athletes in the state of Minnesota. This project is just taking off and has the potential to make a large impact on how the state of Minnesota handles TBIs in student athletes.

Brown is also working on other research projects that focus on the brain and the impact and side effects of TBIs. She has new study undergoing peer review about the prevalence of long term effects from concussions in college students. This study used an online survey system to poll over 400 students and found that almost one third of the responders have suffered a concussion. A subpopulation composed of 15 percent of the total population believed that they have lasting side effects. The results provide a lot of interesting information about students and the prevalence of TBIs. There is currently very little research that can tell us exactly how much of an effect concussions and other “mild” forms of TBI have on students. 

“I like problems that are difficult to solve. There are things we will never know about the brain,” says Dr. Brown. Thanks to this curiosity she has been driven to pursue answers to important questions. “Every brain is so new and unique there is always a new question to ask.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.