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Driving Toward Detection

Can Vehicle Sensors Track Cognitive Impairment?

Did you know that almost 20% of older adults develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which may be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias? Early detection of MCI, however, is a challenge because changes occur gradually making recognition difficult and seeking early treatment less likely – until now.

A transdisciplinary team of FAU researchers recently received a five-year, $5.3 million grant to study an in-vehicle sensor system’s ability to detect cognitive changes in drivers age 65 and older.

The grant, from National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health, brings together faculty from the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, College of Engineering and Computer Science and Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, to test and evaluate the readily and rapidly available and unobtrusive system, which 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.

Drivers experiencing the onset of cognitive impairment may have some difficulty rapidly processing the large amounts of complex information confronting them in many driving situations, said Ruth Tappen, Ed.D., the project’s principal investigator, who is a professor and Eminent Scholar in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. Tappen, who is also an expert gerontologist with extensive experience in dementia research, and the team are developing a low-cost, self monitoring system that could help future drivers identify their own potential cognitive transitions.

“Today, screening and evaluation services are only available to test a small number of older individuals, missing many who need and want to know if they should take preventative action or if they require treatment,” she said. “We want to create an early warning system that could be widely available, inexpensive and easy to use for a large number of older drivers.”

We want to create an early warning system that could be widely available, inexpensive and easy to use for a large number of older drivers.”
— Ruth Tappen, Ed.D.

The study is recruiting 750 volunteers age 65 or older with a current driver’s license and insurance. Each volunteer will receive a detailed cognitive interview and an array of tests that measure capacities such as executive function, memory and visual attention. These tests are effective in detecting MCI and will provide a baseline for understanding future cognitive change.

Researchers will install, test and evaluate a package of sophisticated but unobtrusive sensors in each volunteer’s vehicles. The team will design machine learning algorithms that can identify specific patterns from the huge streams of vehicle sensor data that will be produced. These patterns can provide insight into subtle changes in driving behavior and identify patterns that are specific to the sex, age and vehicle type of each person and account for adverse driving conditions such as high winds or heavy rain. Researchers will also ask for input from volunteers about the sensor system which could lead to design improvements to increase acceptability by older drivers.

“We will use the data to understand driver behavior in a way that has never been done before,” Tappen said. “We want to understand when some people start to move in the direction of mild cognitive impairment, which may be the full extent of the change. But mild cognitive impairment can also convert to Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. The sooner you know about such change, the better. We can’t cure dementia yet but perhaps we can slow down the progression.” ◆