PULLMAN, Wash.–Over 500,000 Americans suffer traumatic head injuries each year. Problems that these people encounter vary, but among the most frustrating are difficulties in memory and attention. In order to better understand the mechanisms behind these problems, Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe is conducting projects through the Head Injury Research Program at Washington State University that focus on how to build on abilities that remain intact following such a traumatic injury.
Schmitter-Edgecombe is trying to understand what happens after a head injury in terms of cognitive processing. Much of her work is geared toward trying to understand what remains intact, and then how those intact abilities can be used to create better remediation procedures. She is currently looking for people who have suffered a traumatic head injury to participate in the program. Participants will complete brain teasers, computerized tasks, and paper and pencil tasks that assess different aspects of memory, attention and intelligence.
Most of the people Schmitter-Edgecombe works with have been in a coma for greater than 24 hours and have suffered “post-traumatic amnesia,” a condition in which the person does not remember things on a daily basis, for at least a week. Persons who suffer a head injury that severe have considerable diffuse injury in the brain. Typically, they are left with some residual difficulties.
Some people make amazing recoveries, says Schmitter-Edgecombe. Even so, many people who suffer severe head injuries will be left with some cognitive difficulties. Because of the nature of the diffuse injury that occurs, people are often left with difficulties in memory and attention.
One of the things that her study will cover is complex skills. Generally, at least parts of complex skills are automatic. For example, skills such as driving a car initially require much concentration. But gradually, skills such as shifting gears become automatic. A brain-injured person may forget the individual skills, making the overall task very difficult.
Although much of Schmitter-Edgecombe’s work is fundamental, she is moving toward remediation. Remediation procedures for traumatic head injuries often involve mnemonic techniques, associative tricks that help trigger memory. Schmitter-Edgecombe believes mnemonic techniques can be good for small bits of information.
But for those who have significant memory difficulties, she says, “It is hard for me to really understand how that can be something that they can use to remember everything that they need to remember in their everyday lives.” A mnemonic, she says, may actually be an added difficulty for a person whose capacities have been limited through injury.
Schmitter-Edgecombe teaches participants to use a memory notebook. Since a brain-injured person may not remember to use the notebook, she works to automatize its use. Participants use an alarm watch to remind them to use the notebook. “We have them set the watch alarm so it goes off every hour. Each hour when the watch alarm goes off, they need to open up the memory notebook and record what they have been doing during that hour.”
For her study, Schmitter-Edgecombe is looking for people between 14 and 55 years old who have suffered traumatic closed head injuries, primarily as the result of something like a motor vehicle accident or a fall. She will examine memory and retention skills and other aspects associated with head injury.
Anyone who has suffered a traumatic head injury who would like to participate in Schmitter-Edgecombe’s research should call 335-0170. Or they can write to The Head Injury Research Program, Department of Psychology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-4820. After an initial screening process, participants will receive information about cognitive skills relative to others their age. If they meet criteria for further participation in the grant program , they will be compensated for time and parking expenses.

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