Research Update: Regaining Autonomy

A question that brain tumour patients often ask is whether they will regain their autonomy. A key component that defines this sense of independence is if they will be able to resume driving.

Whether someone is able to drive or not can impact all areas of their life, including important day-to-day tasks like getting groceries or going to a doctor’s appointment. Because driving is a cognitively complex task that involves motor skills and high-level executive skills like planning and multitasking, it can be an especially challenging activity for individuals diagnosed with a brain tumour.

In 2007, Dr. Michael Cusimano from St. Michael’s Hospital (Toronto, ON) received a Brain Tumour Research Grant for his project, “A driving simulator study of brain tumour patients with focal cerebellar lesions.” The cerebellum is a brain region that is involved in the previously mentioned skills and is also a common site for brain tumours in patients of all ages.

Dr. Cusimano and his team tested brain tumour patients with focal cerebellar lesions on a driving simulator called STISIM Drive® and compared them to a control group of similar age and education. All participants had a valid driver’s license and the simulated driving scenario involved navigating traffic while performing audio and visual tasks designed to mimic driving with distraction, like talking to a passenger and scenery diversions.

To date, preliminary data from the study’s seven patients and seven control group members indicate that the patients are slower at responding to aspects of driving that are more attention-demanding, such as turning left at intersections or responding to audio stimuli. Though these results are consistent with previous findings showing patients with cerebellar lesions are impaired on tests of attention, multitasking and executive functions, Dr. Cusimano’s project is one of the first studies to shed light on the potential impact cerebellar lesions have on real-world behaviours like driving.

Moving forward, Dr. Cusimano has extended his project for another year in order to recruit additional study participants. The project has also generated a publication with a finding strongly hinting that the role of the cerebellum expands beyond that of just motor function.

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