April 22, 2010
ABC 7 (KGO) News
Sylvia Perez and Christine Tressel

Nobody is a perfect driver. But statistics show some motorists carry a greater risk of getting in an accident.

Young drivers are easily distracted and lack experience. Senior drivers start to lose physical abilities and mental speed. But now brain fitness computer programs are available to help sharpen skills.

Getting behind the wheel is something most of us don’t think twice about. But the process of maneuvering through a maze of unpredictable traffic is really quite complicated. Just Ask Bob Parmacke. The 78-year-old has a good driving record. But the veteran motorist suspected his vision and reaction time were starting to slow. So he turned to his computer and invested in a program called DriveSharp. Parmacke says the games he plays on screen work his eyes and reaction time and are helping sharpen his abilities behind the wheel.

“You see those signs in the corner. I see more I see a bigger range I think,” said Parmacek.

The DriveSharp program is geared at drivers 50 and older. It includes two exercises for the brain to work on divided attention and useful field of view. That’s what a person sees in a single glance without moving his or her head.

In one exercise, you have to find jewels hidden in jellyfish as they move around.The games get more difficult as the player gets better.

Maker PositScience says the program is scientifically proven and it’s based on research to help drivers see more and react faster in hopes of preventing accidents.

“Following thousands of people over 5 years we showed we could reduce their at fault crash risk in half and this a lasting change over a couple year period,” said Steve Aldrich, CEO, PositScience.

AAA endorses the product and offers it to members at a discounted rate. Another company Cognifit has an online program for seniors and is now targeting teen drivers with training for skills such as distance estimation, response time, and divided attention.

Researchers at UIC studying driving in older adults say, even in our 20s, as our eyes begin to change we start losing our critical useful field of view. They are not ready to weigh in on these computer games but stress that cognitive skills are just one part of a driver’s ability.

“Driving is a very complex thing,” said Kinsuk Maitra, Ph.D., occupational therapist, Rush University Medical Center.

Neurologist Richard Kraig at the University of Chicago Medical Center says there’s growing clinical evidence the computer games work. He says these games tend to annoy the brain in a good way that in turn encourages it to secrete chemicals, helping it function better much like exercising a muscle. The brain researcher is not surprised Bob Parmacek now senses a greater awareness on the road.

“What’s happened is by practicing he has reawakened brain circuits that bring it to his consciousness more quickly,” said Dr. Kraig.

“My range of vision even just looking straight ahead I see more,” said Parmacek. “I think I’m definitely going to be a safer driver.”

A recent study in the journal Nature found online games designed to improve cognitive skills *did* not make people smarter. Other researchers say there’s still little proof these games transfer to the real world.

Dr. Kraig says there are simple things you can do to keep a maturing brain sharp and your reflexes quick such as bouncing a ball or trying to balance a pencil on your finger.