UM-Dearborn research links driving habits, Alzheimer’s risk


Highway ramps are an important part of civic infrastructure. But a UM-Dearborn graduate researcher says data show they also have connections to a growing worldwide health concern.

Using UM-Dearborn-developed computer programs, Sai Santosh Reddy Danda is looking at drivers’ everyday patterns. He said driving behavior may indicate if someone has a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Alzheimer’s affects millions of people. When we do day-to-day tasks, there has to be a marker or patterns we exhibit that can help identify if someone is more prone to developing Alzheimer’s in the future,” said Danda, who is advised by Yi Lu Murphey, the Paul K. Trojan Collegiate Professor of Engineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering at UM-Dearborn. Danda works as a research assistant in Murphey’s lab.

“Medical testing is expensive, but early detection is important. So are there behaviors we exhibit that can help us identify who is more at risk? My research shows that there are.”

Working on the multiyear study with Murphey and Michigan Medicine, Danda had participants install devices in their cars to track acceleration, speed, respiratory rate, heart rate and more. Over the course of a month, the devices collected driving data of the participants traversing familiar routes.

Danda said all research participants, who are 65 or older, had PET scan results that showed amyloids, a naturally occurring body protein that’s toxic to brain cells in abnormal levels. The study participants were then put into two groups: one with higher amounts of amyloids (amyloid positive) and one with small amounts (amyloid negative).

To be clear, no one in the study had an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Danda said. But it is long believed that amyloid plaques — the build-up of amyloids — is a defining characteristic of the disease.

“Wouldn’t you want to know if you were more at risk? If someone knew they were exhibiting higher-risk behaviors, it may give motivation to change unhealthy habits that may play a role in Alzheimer’s risk like smoking, lack of exercise or poor diet,” Danda said.

Analyzing the driving behavior — like how often and aggressively people merge off a ramp and their speed — he’s noted a pattern in biomarkers in the amyloid positive group, like having a higher heart rate or skin temperature when driving on and off the ramp.

Danda said data analysis shows the higher-risk group exhibits more aggressive driving and stress than the amyloid negative group.

Presenting his findings so far, Danda won the Office of Graduate Studies’ Three Minute Thesis Competition last month. The competition provides an opportunity for graduate-level students to share their research in three minutes or less in an uncomplicated and easy-to-understand way.

Danda represented the university at the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools regional competition April 3-5 in St. Louis.

“I wanted to get more experience in presenting, and I was very grateful that this opportunity was available on campus,” he said. “I’m from India and English is my second language. It was a good way to practice my English. And, as a researcher, I’ll need to present at conferences, so it is important to take any opportunity to practice presentation and communication skills.”

Encouraged by Murphey, Danda also submitted his research abstract to present at the international Alzheimer’s Association’s conference this summer. The conference attracts top researchers, clinicians and dementia professionals.

Danda said he has gotten experience in cutting-edge technology and research while at UM-Dearborn.

“As a kid, I’d play video games and noticed the ones I liked playing, like sports or racing games, had statistics and data patterns that factored into performance,” he said. “So I knew I wanted to go into a field that included this type of thinking and I came to UM-Dearborn for graduate school because of the faculty expertise and because Michigan is an automotive hub.”

Looking toward the future, Danda continues to be interested in data gathering for automotive and health applications. But he also wants to be sure he is doing something that advances knowledge and makes the world a better place.

“Using research data, I want to provide good technologies to help serve the community,” he said. “I know I’m not doing surgery or anything like that, but research like this has the potential to decrease patient death and to increase awareness and quality of life. No matter what I do in the future, I want the main purpose of it to be about the betterment of the world we live in.”


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