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Is bad driving in our genes?

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but while driving in the U.K. last week, I scraped some paint off my rental car. I misjudged how far away I was from an iron railing.

I have a host of excuses: It was late at night. I was returning from dinner at the home of relatives, who live on a very, very dark lane. I was turning onto a ridiculously narrow single-lane bridge at an equally ridiculously awkward angle — and while climbing a small hill. I was driving a stick shift (something I normally don’t do). And, of course, I was sitting on the right side of the car, so judging distances on the left was a bit challenging.

I could yatter on (as they say in Britain) with more excuses, but, hey, I may not need to.

My best excuse might be in my genes. According to a study published recently in the journal Cerebral Cortex, up to 30 percent of Americans have a gene variant that may make them lousy drivers.

The variant can be found in a gene that produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that helps brain cells communicate with each other and that serves a vital role in memory and learning. Earlier research has found that people with the variant tend to release smaller amounts of BDNF when they’re trying to learn a new task that requires physical coordination.

Staying on track

For the current study, neuroscientists at the University of California, Irvine, asked 29 people (22 without the gene variant and 7 with it) to drive 15 laps using a driving simulator. Participants were asked to keep their “car” on a black-lined track in the center of a curving road. Four days later, they returned to perform the task again.

The people with the gene variant performed more than 20 percent worse on this task than their non-variant counterparts. Both groups did better the second time around — but those with the gene variant still made more errors than those without it.

Of course, this study, like all studies, has limitations. It was small and involved people in a narrow age range (18 to 30 years old). And unobserved factors, such as the participants’ mood and anxiety levels, may have affected the outcome.

Helping stroke victims

Despite the fact that it involved a driving test, the purpose of this study wasn’t to figure out some genetic way of dividing people into “good” and “bad” drivers. (And let’s hope some insurance company doesn’t use the study’s findings for that purpose.) The study’s intent, say its authors, was to shed more light on how the brain can relearn complex tasks after an injury, such as a stroke.

And, indeed, previous research suggests that people with this gene variant have more difficulty recovering from stroke.

Nor is the news all bad for people with the variant. It turns out they’re also less vulnerable to certain neurodegenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and multiple sclerosis. (This factor may explain the evolutionary staying power of the variant.)

I have no idea if I have this gene variant or not (and I’m not sure I want to know).

What I do know, however, is that I’m not going to attempt to drive over that bloody bridge again at night.



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