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HOUSTON — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is able to laugh at jokes, recognize visitors and even offer a poignant response when asked recently by her husband how she was doing.

“Better,” Giffords said, in one of the first words she uttered since being shot in the head Jan. 8.

Family friend Tilman Fertitta described the encounters to The Associated Press after spending time with her family and friends and recently visiting Giffords at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston, where she is undergoing intensive rehabilitation.

Giffords has been showing strong signs of progress each day as she recovers from her wounds and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, spends time at her bedside. Kelly has been splitting his days between the hospital and training for his space shuttle launch in April.

She is in therapy from morning until night, Fertitta said, and sees Kelly every day.

“There’s lots of excitement as she continues to speak more and improve,” he added. “She’s in a great mood and working hard.”

“She recognizes everybody,” Fertitta added.

Kelly has said he expects Giffords to be well enough to attend the shuttle launch, but doctors said it was still too early to say whether she would be in good enough shape to travel to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to watch her husband head the mission.

“The doctors are encouraged because she’s improved much faster than expected,” Fertitta said.

Fertitta is chairman, president and CEO of Landry’s Inc., the company that owns the Golden Nugget casinos and several restaurant chains, including one bearing the company’s name. He met Giffords through Kelly, and has known the astronaut for about eight years. Fertitta attended their wedding in Tucson and when they found themselves in crisis, provided them with the jet that carried Giffords from the hospital in Tucson to the rehabilitation center in Houston.

Now, the 51-year-old Houston native is helping the family during their extended stay in his hometown, visiting Giffords whenever possible.

“She’s in a very good mood, an extremely good mood,” he said.

Accounts earlier this week showed Giffords has been able to mouth the words to songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” while responding to several basic verbal commands.

Dr. Neil Jasey, who specializes in treating traumatic brain injury at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., said the new glimpses of progress are “extremely encouraging (because of) the fact that it’s happening this quickly.”

Giffords seems to understand social context if she’s laughing at jokes, and has some insight into her condition if she can realize she is now better, Jasey said.

While Jasey said he can speak only in a general terms, he said the reported progress bodes well for what he called a meaningful recovery – one that allows a patient to perform basic activities of living.

“It’s too early to start talking about her ability to go back to work,” he said.

Jared Loughner is charged in federal court in the assassination attempt against Giffords that killed six people. Authorities described him as a mentally unstable college dropout who became obsessed with carrying out violence against Giffords for reasons that aren’t clear.

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