Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Hum. Neurosci., 28 February 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00053

Brain activity during driving with distraction: an immersive fMRI study

Tom A. Schweizer1,2,3*, Karen Kan3, Yuwen Hung1, Fred Tam4, Gary Naglie5,6,7,8 and Simon J. Graham4,9
  • 1Keenan Research Centre of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 2Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine, Division of Neurosurgery, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 3Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 4Department of Physical Sciences, Sunnybrook Research Institute, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 5Department of Medicine, Baycrest Geriatric Health Care Centre, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 6Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 7Toronto Rehabilitation Research Institute, University Health Network, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 8Department of Medicine and Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 9Department of Medical Biophysics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

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 distractions, neural correlates of driving, driving complexity, fMRI

Citation: Schweizer TA, Kan K, Hung Y, Tam F, Naglie G and Graham SJ (2013) Brain activity during driving with distraction: an immersive fMRI study. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 7:53. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00053

Received: 05 November 2012; Accepted: 08 February 2013;
Published online: 28 February 2013.

Edited by:

Daniel S. Margulies, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Germany

Reviewed by:

Kimmo Alho, University of Helsinki, Finland
Lutz Jäncke, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Copyright © 2013 Schweizer, Kan, Hung, Tam, Naglie and Graham. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Tom A. Schweizer, Keenan Research Centre of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael's Hospital, 30 Bond Street, Toronto, ON M5B 1W8, Canada. e-mail: schweizerT@smh.ca

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