Studies to zoom in on links between cognitive decline and driving behavior

Image credits: Jaromír Kavan.

Hopefully, your elderly friends and family are in good driving shape. Nonetheless, age-related declines in cognitive functioning can occur. If this happens, it can affect one’s driving abilities.

“Despite dementia and other neurobiological disorders that are associated with aging, improved imaging has revealed that even into our seventies, our brains continue producing new neurons,” notes the Dana Foundation, an organization based in New York committed to advancing brain research.

As people age, their movements and reflexes can slow down. But there is little consistency in how these changes happen. Cognitive abilities show at least a small decline with age in many—but not all—healthy persons. In a recent study looking at cognitive peaks and declines, researchers found considerable variability in the changes of cognitive ability throughout life. For the sake of both drivers and pedestrians, we must pay attention to that variability.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US, “research has established that drivers with dementia are at a greater risk for crashes compared to cognitively normal adults, but little research has been done regarding the effects of mild cognitive impairment on driving performance.”

Mild cognitive impairment and what it means for driving performance is being examined for decades now. Even so, we still don’t have a clear, formal diagnosis It is a state of being where there is no straightforward diagnosis of dementia.

This is what makes the ongoing research at the University of East Anglia (UEA) so interesting. They’ve launched a new study, looking at how everyday driving changes in people who are over 65.

Lost in space

Lead researcher Prof. Michael Hornberger, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School said that “surprisingly little is known on how the cognitive changes during aging impact our driving.” Dr. Hornberger has highlighted spatial disorientation and its implications in driving.

“Spatial disorientation often therefore only becomes obvious to others when the disease has more advanced, as we cannot compensate anymore our spatial deficits. It is therefore important to remember that spatial disorientation is an early symptom in Alzheimer’s disease but only seems to ’emerge’ to others later.” As for getting behind the wheel, he said that “the effect of cognitive or spatial navigation changes on car driving have – so far – been virtually unexplored, despite being very common when cognitive changes occur.”

Hornberger and colleagues are currently looking for volunteers in the study called The Driver Effect of Cognitive Impairment and Spatial Orientation and Navigation (DECISION). Volunteers must be at least 65 years, have valid driving licenses, and are currently driving.

Algorithms on the go

In Florida, meanwhile, yet another study will take off, focusing on older drivers in the United States. Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing in collaboration with FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science and Charles E. Schmidt College of Science received a five-year, $5.3 million grant from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health for a project called “In-vehicle Sensors to Detect Cognitive Change in Older Drivers.”

This is where technology will play a key part. The grant will test an in-vehicle sensing system, looking to deliver early warnings of cognitive change for older drivers in the United States. How might technologies in vehicles catch signs of abnormal driving behavior that are attributable to cognitive impairment?

The project involves a battery of cognitive tests; sensors designed to detect cognitive change; developing algorithms that could translate the sensor data into behavior indices that are gender, age and vehicle-specific; and evaluating acceptability of installed systems in older drivers. The systems will include cameras, on-board diagnostics, high level GPS, motion and orientation detection, vision sensors, driver eye movements, driving scene awareness, and driving behavior tracked and recorded over time.

Just reading over what the researchers will look for has resonance for anyone encountering an older person driving sub-optimally. Researchers will track not just travel patterns but abnormal driving such as getting lost, losing focus, and near-collision events; reaction time when stopping at a stop sign or traffic light; and braking patterns such as stopping at a stop sign or traffic signal as well as ignoring traffic signals. The study design aims for the setup itself to be kept simple, minimizing complex wiring and the number of in-vehicle sensors.

As mentioned in the FAU announcement, this “could provide the first step toward future widespread, low-cost early warnings of cognitive change for this large number of older drivers in the United States.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.