CSU researcher awarded grant to study how to prolong safe driving for people with Alzheimer’s

Woman stands behind another woman who is seated in a driving simulator. A man is seated at a control console to their left.
Neha Lodha observes a participant in the virtual driving simulator in her lab.

Getting a driver’s license is one sign of approaching adulthood. But for the 6.2 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, that diagnosis generally means their time behind the wheel is ending.

Every individual’s experience with dementia is different. Neha Lodha, assistant professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Health and Exercise Science and a faculty member in the interdisciplinary School of Biomedical Engineering, believes that by identifying and measuring behavioral biomarkers, it may be possible to prolong the time when individuals with cognitive impairment can continue driving safely.

To that end, Lodha is looking to use a three-year, $150,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Association to help measure how behavioral changes can predict a decline in driving safety, with a goal of developing rehabilitation approaches to promote and prolong safe driving. Collaborating on the grant with Lodha are CSU colleagues Manfred Diehl, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and Haonan Wang, professor and department chair in the Department of Statistics, along with Karlene Ball, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

View over the left shoulder of a person holding a steering wheel in a driving simulator, with video screens showing a street at night.
Participant tries out the virtual driving simulator.

While much of the focus of Alzheimer’s research has been on factors that affect cognitive performance, Lodha believes that measuring changes in motor skills could play a key role in making decisions that enable people with dementia to drive longer and signal when changes are needed. In her lab, Lodha has a high-tech driving simulator, and she designs research studies to measure how people perform in an immersive and realistic driving experience.

“My goal is to enable people to drive longer and more safely,” said Lodha. “We currently know much about cognitive changes people with Alzheimer’s experience, but less about movement impairment.”

Impacting quality of care

Woman in a lab coat drawing a graph on a whiteboard
Neha Lodha in the Laboratory of Movement Neuroscience and Rehabilitation in the Department of Health and Exercise Science.

Lodha had her “aha” moment with Alzheimer’s when, in her senior year of engineering studies at a medical facility, she was paired with an individual with dementia.
“Cognitive impairments are conspicuous in Alzheimer’s disease, but motor skill decline is not so obvious,” she said. Both cognitive and motor skills are essential to do everyday tasks such as driving, walking, and using both hands for household chores.

Lodha’s plan is to use the three-year research process to generate knowledge that documents how behavioral fluctuations affect safe mobility and identify those behavioral biomarkers that serve as early indicators of functional decline. Ultimately, her goal is to be able to impact the quality of care and improve human health – potentially through smart technologies that may indicate the early onset of subtle changes in mobility before the appearance of obvious clinical symptoms.

Target audience

The audience that could be affected by Lodha’s research is enormous. The Department of Health and Human Services states that 74.6 million people – 22% of the U.S. population – are age 60 and older. It is estimated that between 12% and 18% of people aged 60 and older are already living with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and for many, but not all, MCI will develop into Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

Research project

Lodha’s three-year research project, Harnessing Behavioral Fluctuations to Predict Decline in Driving Function, will include approximately 100 individuals divided among individuals living with MCI, individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease who are still able to drive, and healthy older adults as a control group. The grant received by Lodha is one of more than 900 research projects costing over $300 million that the Alzheimer’s Association is currently funding in 45 countries.

About the Alzheimer’s Association

The Alzheimer’s Association leads the way to end Alzheimer’s and all other dementia — by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support. Their vision is a world without Alzheimer’s and all other dementia. For more information, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website.

Jim Herlihy is senior director of marketing and communications for the Colorado chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The Department of Health and Exercise Science is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.