Wearable brain scanner research to examine elderly drivers

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

A wearable brain scanner is being used, for the first time, to investigate the brain activity in elderly people whilst driving a car.

Research led by the University of Nottingham and funded by the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing will explore how neural substrates underling cognitive processing whilst driving, change with age.

Maintaining quality of life for elderly people is an increasing concern given the UK’s ageing population and the findings from this study could enable a new understanding of neural processing, which in turn will enable elderly people to receive the necessary therapies and interventions to help them maintain their driving abilities, and therefore their independence, for longer.

This project will use brain imaging technology developed at the University of Nottingham known as OPM-MEG, which has recently been commercialised by Nottingham spin-out company Cerca Magnetics Limited. This system is lightweight, wearable, and can be held close to the scalp using a helmet-style design, allowing for significantly better sensitivity and spatial resolution than current imaging technologies.

This device will be used to provide highly accurate, real-time brain imaging for a group of volunteers, who will be asked to navigate a realistic driving simulator through an urban setting with multiple hazards. This will allow researchers to analyse the ‘detect and response’ reactions from the resulting data. Recent evidence has shown that although elderly people exhibit a decline in driving ability, they also demonstrate increased mental effort to mitigate losses in performance. This project will, for the first time, shed light on the neural underpinnings of visual search in driving and study how cognitive training impacts brain responses as well as performance.

We will have volunteers of different ages driving through a simulated environment and facing some of the issues that are critical in real driving, such as the sudden appearance of a pedestrian. By exploiting the team’s expertise on vision, ageing and neuroscience, in combination with cutting-edge technology, we expect to ultimately find neural biomarkers of driving ‘fitness’. Along with this, we also plan to investigate how visual search training can lead to improved driving performance.
Dr Matias Ison, School of Psychology

Similar to many other countries, the UK has an aging population. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are around 1.6 million people over the age of 85, and this age group is set to double in size by 2041 and triple by 2066.

The Driving Vehicle Licensing Agency report that there are around 4.5 million UK motorists over the age of 70. In 2015, 17,000 of these motorists were deemed unfit to drive. Little is known about how neural substrates decline in old age, and this knowledge would pave the way for training and interventions, enabling elderly people to maintain their independence for longer.

For many years, neuroimaging has focussed on understanding brain responses to simple tasks, such as finger movement. This is because undertaking naturalistic tasks, like driving, has been impossible to study in conventional scanners which are claustrophobic and require people to remain still for long periods. Now, for the first time, we have the wearable technology to begin to understand cognition, and its breakdown, whilst performing naturalistic tasks. We are excited to see where this new project will take us.
Professor Matthew Brookes, School of Physics and Astronomy

Dr Simon Bennett, Director at the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, said: “We are delighted to be able to support this project, which again demonstrates the versatility of the brain imaging technology developed by our researchers. We look forward to seeing the take-up of this technology in neuroscience, healthcare research and clinical practice.”

The innovative quantum brain imaging technology developed by Hub researchers opens up many different opportunities to explore the human brain in real-time and in real-world environments. This ground-breaking project represents the first step on the path towards a new generation of neuroscientific performance.


Story credits

More information is available from Professor Matthew Brookes at the University of Nottingham or Jane Icke, Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Science at the University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 5751,

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager Science
Phone: 0115 7486462

Notes to editors:

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