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Brain Activity During Driving With Distraction: An Immersive fMRI Study


Brain Activity During Driving With Distraction: An Immersive fMRI Study

Tom A Schweizer et al. Front Hum Neurosci.


Introduction: Non-invasive measurements of brain activity have an important role to play in understanding driving ability. The current study aimed to identify the neural underpinnings of human driving behavior by visualizing the areas of the brain involved in driving under different levels of demand, such as driving while distracted or making left turns at busy intersections.

Materials and methods: To capture brain activity during driving, we placed a driving simulator with a fully functional steering wheel and pedals in a 3.0 Tesla functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system. To identify the brain areas involved while performing different real-world driving maneuvers, participants completed tasks ranging from simple (right turns) to more complex (left turns at busy intersections). To assess the effects of driving while distracted, participants were asked to perform an auditory task while driving analogous to speaking on a hands-free device and driving.

Results: A widely distributed brain network was identified, especially when making left turns at busy intersections compared to more simple driving tasks. During distracted driving, brain activation shifted dramatically from the posterior, visual and spatial areas to the prefrontal cortex.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that the distracted brain sacrificed areas in the posterior brain important for visual attention and alertness to recruit enough brain resources to perform a secondary, cognitive task. The present findings offer important new insights into the scientific understanding of the neuro-cognitive mechanisms of driving behavior and lay down an important foundation for future clinical research.

Keywords: driving; driving complexity; driving distractions; fMRI; neural correlates of driving.


Figure 1
Figure 1
Representative STISIM screenshots of simulated driving conditions used in the fMRI. Rural scenery was chosen to minimize the potential confounding variations from using complex visual backgrounds. (A) Straight driving; (B) Left turn at intersection with no traffic; (C) Left turn with oncoming traffic.
Figure 2
Figure 2
The experimental task design.
Figure 3
Figure 3
Brain activations from the bottom to the top of the brain (left to right figures) of participants when performing various simulated driving conditions. (A) The right-turn condition showed minimal activation in the brain; (B) Left-turn showed more activation in the posterior brain regions; (C) The left-turns with oncoming traffic generated larger significant activations of multiple bilateral regions in the mid-posterior brain areas. See details in the “Results” section.
Figure 4
Figure 4
Brain activations associated with distracted driving. (A) Straight driving with a cognitive-distraction, audio task. (B) The demanding, left-turn condition with oncoming traffic plus the cognitive distraction.

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