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Neuroanatomical correlates of distracted straight driving performance: a driving simulator MRI study across the lifespan.

BACKGROUND: Driving is the preferred mode of transportation for adults across the healthy age span. However, motor vehicle crashes are among the leading causes of injury and death, especially for older adults, and under distracted driving conditions. Understanding the neuroanatomical basis of driving may inform interventions that minimize crashes. This exploratory study examined the neuroanatomical correlates of undistracted and distracted simulated straight driving.

METHODS: One-hundred-and-thirty-eight participants (40.6% female) aged 17-85 years old (mean and SD = 58.1 ± 19.9 years) performed a simulated driving task involving straight driving and turns at intersections in a city environment using a steering wheel and foot pedals. During some straight driving segments, participants responded to auditory questions to simulate distracted driving. Anatomical T1-weighted MRI was used to quantify grey matter volume and cortical thickness for five brain regions: the middle frontal gyrus (MFG), precentral gyrus (PG), superior temporal cortex (STC), posterior parietal cortex (PPC), and cerebellum. Partial correlations controlling for age and sex were used to explore relationships between neuroanatomical measures and straight driving behavior, including speed, acceleration, lane position, heading angle, and time speeding or off-center. Effects of interest were noted at an unadjusted p -value threshold of 0.05.

RESULTS: Distracted driving was associated with changes in most measures of straight driving performance. Greater volume and cortical thickness in the PPC and cerebellum were associated with reduced variability in lane position and heading angle during distracted straight driving. Cortical thickness of the MFG, PG, PPC, and STC were associated with speed and acceleration, often in an age-dependent manner.

CONCLUSION: Posterior regions were correlated with lane maintenance whereas anterior and posterior regions were correlated with speed and acceleration, especially during distracted driving. The regions involved and their role in straight driving may change with age, particularly during distracted driving as observed in older adults. Further studies should investigate the relationship between distracted driving and the aging brain to inform driving interventions.

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