A driving simulator similar to flight simulators used to train pilots can help people re-learn to drive after suffering a stroke.
Nearly 75 percent of stroke patients trained on the simulator were able to pass an official driving test, compared with 42 percent of patients who completed standard training, Dr. Abiodun Akinwuntan of the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and colleagues in Belgium report.
The driving simulator, developed by Akinwuntan and his team, offers a 20-mile course and a wide variety of traffic settings, from quiet country roads to highways and bustling city streets, and features a real steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals. It can cost as little as $15,000 to build, the researchers write in the medical journal Neurology, and requires about 10 square feet of office space, so setting up similar devices to test the current findings should not be difficult.
The normal approach to helping stroke patients re-learn driving skills relies on pencil and paper practice methods, like finding a route on a paper map and learning to recognize road and traffic signs, as well as actual road testing.
Dr. Akinwuntan and his team tested the effectiveness of the program by randomly assigning 83 people to training in the simulator or a standard program involving driving-related cognitive tasks. The program lasted 15 hours in total and was given over a five-week period. Study participants completed off-road and on-road tests of driving skills before and after taking the course.
In Belgium, where the study was performed, people are not legally allowed to drive for six months after having a stroke, and must then pass a series of tests, including a driving assessment, to legally drive again.
Seventy-three percent of patients who completed the simulator-training course passed their follow-up driving test and were allowed back on the road, compared with 42 percent of those in the control group. The researchers found that participants whose stroke had affected the left side of the brain fared better on the simulator than patients with damage to the right side of the brain. More educated and less disabled patients also showed more improvement with the simulator training.
The authors call for future studies to confirm the effectiveness of simulator training for stroke patients, and to determine if the approach can help patients with other neurological problems, such as Parkinson’s disease and early dementia.