There has been a considerable amount of attention to and public interest in brain fitness programs for an aging population. Some of these programs suggest that they may improve driving performance. A team of researchers from the New England University Transportation Center and MIT AgeLab and University of Massachusetts Boston are investigating whether DriveSharp, a brain fitness program by Posit Science, changes actual driving performance or the allocation of visual attention to the road.
The team, led by Dr. Bryan Reimer and Bruce Mehler, research scientists at the AgeLab and New England University Transportation Center, along with Anya Potter, a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, are testing the effects of Posit Science’s DriveSharp brain fitness software on drivers on local Massachusetts roads. Before and after using the software, subjects drive a highly instrumented vehicle that contains sensors for tracking visual attention, heart rate, driving performance and surrounding road conditions. Potter proposed the project to Reimer after reading about cognitive training programs for her dissertation as a graduate student.
“I noticed there was a huge gap in the research and that there was no real evidence that training helped in the real world,” said Potter.
“Over the past five years I’ve had an interest in doing research in this area,” said Reimer. “Anya’s interest became the motivation for us to put the project together.” DriveSharp aims to improve the speed of visual processing and increase useful field of view. It has been shown to reduce at-fault accident risk, yet Dr. Reimer stated there was “little evidence beyond simulation studies showing how drivers who have undergone training actually change behavior, either visually or through the operation of the vehicle.”
“There is evidence that the training programs can improve on lab-based measures, but little evidence exists as to how these behaviors extend to real-life driving conditions,” said Potter.
“None look at eye-tracking and other measures of how someone is in fact attending to the road,” she said. Findings thus far that showed that improvement in visual attention leads to improved driving usually involved simulator experiments, self-report or state driving records.
Many older adults consider their ability to drive a symbol of their continuing freedom and independence. The New England University Transportation Center and MIT AgeLab hope the research will help the aging community better understand their options for maintaining their independence.
“There are a myriad of brain fitness programs available, and they all boast improvements,” said Potter. “We would like to be able to help provide individuals with programs that show improvement in real-life activities and help people age gracefully.”
This research is funded by the New England University Transportation Center and the Santos Family Foundation.