Genetics and Poor Driving

Cerebral Cortex Journal has found that people with a certain gene variant performed more than 30 percent worse on a driving test than those without it. The study, conducted by researcher Steven Cramer, seeks to explain why there are so many bad drivers on our highways.

When a person typically performs a task, a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is secreted to the area of a brain associated with a given activity. This certain protein also helps to facilitate communication among brains cells, as well as the retention of memory. There are some unfortunate people who have the gene variation studied by Cramer, in which BDNF secretion is limited.

“These people make more errors from the get-go, and they forget more of what they learned after time away,” Cramer said.

The gene variant isn’t always bad, though. Several studied have found subjects to maintain their mental sharpness longer than those without it when neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and multiple sclerosis are present.

The Study

Cramer’s team recruited 29 people to drive 15 laps on a simulated course, in which they found that twenty-two of the participants did not have the variant. Seven of the test participants did possess the variant, however. Ultimately, the research concluded that people with the variant did worse on the tests than the other participants, and remembered far less the second time.

Previous studies have shown that in people with the variant, a smaller portion of the brain is stimulated when doing a task than in those with a normal BDNF gene. People with the variant also don’t recover as well after a stroke. Given these differences, the UCI scientists wondered: Could the variant affect an activity such as driving?

“We wanted to study motor behavior, something more complex than finger-tapping,” said Stephanie McHughen, graduate student and lead author of the study. “Driving seemed like a good choice because it has a learning curve and it’s something most people know how to do.”

Unfortunately, a test to determine whether someone has the gene variant is not commercially available.

“Behavior derives from dozens and dozens of neurophysiologic events, so it’s somewhat surprising this exercise bore fruit,” Cramer said.

Some Drivers Can Blame Genetics

The researchers were actually surprised that their data showed such a vast difference between participants with and without the variant. Driving is, after all, a complex set of motor and neurological skills, building on innate ability with learned behavior through driver education. This being said, it could prove quite difficult to pinpoint one specific factor that affects ones driving.

Since the results only represent a small group of drivers, further testing is obviously required to further determine how important this gene variant is. Without a functional test, and depending how much effort researchers plan on investing in this subject, it seems this initial finding shall be sufficient for the time being. Perhaps if it were looked into further, however, there is a possibility of avoiding future accidents.