Effects of Physical Activity, Executive Function, and Risk-taking in Life and Behind the Wheel

Researchers will investigate the impact of cognitive motor function that impairs driving safety, medical self-management, social functioning and quality of life, and the extent to which such impacts can be reversed with specific and specialized rehabilitation using virtual reality driving simulation.

A major factor that could successfully differentiate adolescents at low/high risk for unsafe driving (and other practices) could be the delayed development of executive functioning (EF), which may underlie the poor judgment that contributes to collision and impaired driving ability and safety. EF is the ability to employ working memory allowing us to anticipate consequences, inhibit impulses, plan ahead, problem solve, and be creative in our interaction with the world. EF ability also changes over time, demonstrating an inverse curve  with maturation of the prefrontal cortex in adolescence and young adulthood and a subsequent decline with prefrontal atrophy in older age, mirroring driving ability and safety. Measures of EF have been associated with simulated driving performance on-road driving performance, and a history of vehicular collisions. An interesting and exciting caveat is that there is an apparent dose-response relationship between the development/maintenance of EF and amount of physical activity and fitness among both youth and seniors.

This multi-departmental proposal would be the first known longitudinal investigation of the role EF plays in both general risk-taking and driving-specific risk behaviors of novice drivers, as well as the role physical activity and fitness play in the maturation of EF ability.  This study will involve quantifying general and driving-specific EF, affinity to general and driving-specific risk-taking, and physical activity and fitness in adolescents ready to secure their independent driver’s license. Subjects would then be followed through their first six months of independent driving, documenting the occurrence of vehicular collisions and citations and other risky behaviors.

Principle Investigator: Daniel J. Cox - Professor, Departments of Psychiatric Medicine and Internal Medicine

Co-Investigator: Ronald E. Reeve - Professor of Education and Director, School of Education and Human Development Programs in Clinical and School Psychology

Co-Investigator: Joseph P. Allen - Professor, Psychology

Co-Investigator: John Sirard - Assistant Professor, School of Education and Human Development

Co-Investigator: Richard Warren - Director of Albemarle High School

Co-Investigator: Arthur L. Weltman - Professor, Kinesiology

Program Coordinator: Anne Lambert, Postdoctoral Fellow

Associated Faculty