Nebraska Docs: Driving Simulator Can Save Lives

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December 18th, 2015

Willie Wingfield was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which effects the brain. By monitoring patients like Wingfield in the simulator, researchers hope to better understand how certain medical conditions can affect a person's ability to drive. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Willie Wingfield was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which effects the brain. By monitoring patients like Wingfield in the simulator, researchers hope to better understand how certain medical conditions can affect a person’s ability to drive. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Driving a car is one of the most common things people do on a daily basis. It’s also one of the most dangerous. Doctors at the University of Nebraska Medical Center are developing new research techniques that could make driving safer for millions of people.


61-year-old Willie Wingfield is sitting in a car, driving down the street. But his car, isn’t actually moving. It’s parked in an office at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Six large screens stand just outside the blue, four-door sedan. The screens project images of a downtown area, the rear and side-view mirrors are also small screens, showing what you’d expect to see behind you while driving. There’s even the sound of an engine broadcast through a speaker on the floorboard.

When taken as a whole, it feels like driving.

Screens take the place of rear view and side view mirrors in the driving simulator. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Screens take the place of rear view and side view mirrors in the driving simulator. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

“This is very impressive and realistic,” Wingfield said, “You pass through corners, and you can look down the street and you get full visual immersion. It’s pretty cool.”

Wingfield was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and about a year ago, under-went a procedure called DBS, or deep brain stimulation.

“They implant electrodes into your brain and then pass low levels of current,” Wingfield said. “It helps control the tremors.”

Wingfield is taking part in a study conducted by UNMC’s Mind and Brain Health Labs. Almost every aspect of his trip was pre-planned. The time of day, weather conditions, whether the simulation took place in a rural or urban environment…almost every detail was accounted for.

In this scientific experiment, the unknown factor is the driver, and their every movement is studied.

Dr. Matthew Rizzo is a UNMC professor and Chair of the Neurological Sciences Department. He said the car has a number of sensors to monitor the driver.

The six high-fidelity screens provide the driver with 290 degrees of simulated environment. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

The six high-fidelity screens provide the driver with 290 degrees of simulated environment. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

“On the steering wheel, on the accelerator pedal, on the break,” Rizzo explained, “[The car] can also record eye movements and EEG (electroencephalogram) and other physiologic measures; So we get a picture of behavior and how that relates to the internal state of a person.”

Rizzo said the driving simulator is part of a broader Mind and Brain Health Initiative by UNMC to study how the human brain reacts in virtually every aspect of everyday life.

According to Rizzo, driving has become a foundational part of life for most Americans. Most people drive their cars to work, to the grocery story, to restaurants, to go see family, etc.

Rizzo said driving is also one of the most dangerous things we do.

“When you lose those abilities [to drive], and you lose those skills, it’s a catastrophe,” he said. “When people lose their ability to drive, they become shut-ins and their world becomes smaller. It’s basically a sign of the end is near.

Learning how different medical conditions or medications impact someone’s ability to drive is a component in Rizzo’s research, but it doesn’t stop there.

Rizzo said a person’s brain is often most active when they’re behind the wheel, so studying brain functions while driving helps paint a better overall picture of a person’s neurological health. That information can then be used to create a road map to recovery.

Dr. Matthew Rizzo (right) reviews data with Hannah Maher, a clinical research associate. Dr. Rizzo said his team also uses devices to track a patient's driving habits in their own cars, to get a more accurate picture of driving habits. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Dr. Matthew Rizzo (right) reviews data with Hannah Maher, a clinical research associate. Dr. Rizzo said his team also uses devices to track a patient’s driving habits in their own cars, to get a more accurate picture of driving habits. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

“So for example,” Rizzo said, “Mr. Smith you have trouble with this kind of setting. Avoid this, or learn to do this better.”

Rizzo said his research could also help car manufacturers build better cars.

“With better interfaces and better safety alerting and warning systems to help them alert at risk drivers, sleepy drivers, drivers with medical impairments. There’s even the possibility of using a car as a medical device,” Rizzo said.

But all that is down the road.

This early in the research, Rizzo said he and his team are focused on gathering the data; which means getting more people like Willie Wingfield behind the wheel of a real car, in a fake world.

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