2014-2015 Alzheimer’s and Related Diseases Research Award*

The Neurophysiology of Driving Impairments in Early Alzheimer’s Disease

VCoA*The Virginia Center on Aging which administers the Alzheimer’s and Related Diseases Research Award Fund for the Commonwealth of Virginia, provides seed money to researchers in Virginia to stimulate innovative research into biomedical and psychosocial aspects of dementia, including cell biology, caregiving, and animal modeling.

The Neurophysiology of Driving Impairments in Early Alzheimer’s Disease

Roberto Fernandez-Romero MD, MPH, PhD

University of Virginia

Getting lost in familiar surroundings, wandering, and unsafe driving are some of the most debilitating early symptoms of AD and represent a major safety concern. These visual-spatial impairments have been associated with a decreased capacity to perceive optic flow, the pattern of visual-motion that is naturally observed during common tasks like ambulation or vehicular driving. Using an electroencephalographic technique known as event related potentials (ERPs), the investigators recorded specific brainwaves that are generated by optic flow and found significant differences between AD patients and controls. In this study they combined ERPs with a virtual reality driving test to explore the links between decreased brain responsiveness and driving capacity in a group of 19 patients with early stage AD and 18 cognitively normal elderly controls. Only one patient passed the driving test and only one control subject failed it. A comparison of test scores showed highly significant differences between the two groups, supporting the utility of virtual reality in the assessment of driving capacity. The researchers also found statistically significant differences in the magnitude of ERPs, with AD subjects showing smaller responses that were also linked to poor driving scores and impaired cognitive tests. These results have several implications; the differences in response magnitude between groups and their association to cognitive scores support the potential utility of ERPs as early markers of Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, the association between ERPs and driving score supports the notion that impaired perception of optic flow is partly responsible for impaired driving capacity and suggests that ERPs may serve as screening tools. Future studies with larger samples will be necessary to generalize these findings and establish normal parameters. Longitudinal studies will also explore the use of optic flow ERPs as markers of disease progression.

(Dr. Fernandez-Romero may be contacted at 434/ 243-5611, rf6u@virginia.edu)



More 2014-2015 Funded Projects