Driving Simulator To Be Tested On Multiple Sclerosis Patients
Posted Sep 05 2010 7:36am
The Medical College of Georgia has received a one-year grant to determine the usefulness of using a simulator-based driving training program to improve fitness-to-drive in multiple sclerosis patients.
Fifty participants, recruited for the study through the MCG Multiple Sclerosis Center, will receive driving training at the MCG Driving Simulation Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Abiodun Akinwuntan, associate professor of physical therapy, graduate studies and neurology. The study is funded by the Consortium for Multiple Sclerosis Centers.
"An extensive study using the same driving training program with stroke survivors showed tremendous difference in putting participants back behind the wheel," said Akinwuntan. With cognitive training, stroke survivors improved their chances of returning to driving from 30 percent to 41 percent. By adding simulator training, the odds increased to 73 percent.
An ongoing MCG study with Parkinson's disease patients shows signs of comparable outcomes. "We hope patients with multiple sclerosis will also derive visual, cognitive, perceptual and physical benefits necessary for safe driving from the training program," Akinwuntan said.
Another study goal is to eliminate redundant testing of multiple sclerosis patients to determine their driving safety.
"The medical community has a laundry list of tests, about 25 in all, to evaluate the driving ability of patients with multiple sclerosis," said Akinwuntan. "We believe that not all of these tests are necessary." The study hopes to determine which three to five tests are most likely to give an accurate assessment in order to reduce cost, time and manpower.
Drs. Gregory Lee, Lara Stepleman and Mitzi Williams are co-investigators on the study.
The Driving Simulation Laboratory also has expanded services to accommodate other physically challenged drivers.
Eighteen-year-old Todd Goldberg and his twin brother, Keith, who have hereditary spastic paraplegia, have been coming to the lab for several months to "drive" in preparation for their driver's licenses.
The Lakeside High School seniors' limited lower-body strength necessitates hand controls when driving. Local driving schools' vehicles lack such equipment, so the twins call the MCG lab a perfect supplement to their father's adapted GMC Savana conversion van.
"The first time I did the simulator I did pretty good, except for turning," Todd said. "After that, I've done really well. It's helped me with power and control. Because we have such strong upper-body strength, the slightest touch can send the car up to the highest speed. Now I'm more comfortable."
Keith's first reaction to the simulator was a sense of familiarity from years of playing video games. That's not surprising, since driving simulators were developed from Atari games.
"The differences between video games and this simulator are primarily the types of traffic events and the turn capability," Akinwuntan said. "The simulated traffic closely resembles typical real-life traffic situations in a city like Augusta, Ga. The turn capability of the simulator is limited in precision, but it turns up to 360 degrees and backs up."
The brothers also had to get used to the difference between the simulator car, a 1991 Plymouth Acclaim, and actual street driving.
"When you apply gas to go faster, our car has more vibration," Keith said. "Applying speed to it is different than in the simulator."
Nevertheless, "what you learn in the simulator does translate to real driving," Akinwuntan said. "The simulated drive is programmed so that challenges will come just when the driver needs to attend and react to other traffic events on the road, forcing him to prioritize. Todd and Keith see real accident situations and learn how to react to them without panicking. They get feedback when they do the wrong thing without the consequence of damages."
"This is a great learning tool, a real plus," said Peter Goldberg, the twins' father, who has the same condition as his sons and recently switched to hand controls for driving. "If we want to have people who are physically challenged in the working world and paying taxes, they need a way of getting there. If they want to get independent, then they have to learn to drive."