"Traditionally, to help patients learn to drive again, therapists have relied on conventional methods like paper-and-pencil-based training and sometimes an on-road training method", Dr. Akinwuntan stated. "I have never been a proponent of the on-road method because it can be unsafe. Healthy drivers find the roads dangerous enough."
In 2003, Dr. Akinwuntan and his colleagues at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium, the Belgian Road Safety Institute in Brussels and University Hospital in Pellenberg, Belgium, studied 83 stroke patients in the rehabilitation unit of the hospital. Using a 20-mile computer-simulated course that Dr. Akinwuntan developed, patients practised driving in a variety of traffic situations. Virtual rural and open roads, urban settings and highways each tested a different skill level.
"Rural, small roads have less traffic and test basic skills", Dr. Akinwuntan stated. "The urban setting has more traffic and can test how well patients perform when their attention is divided among many distractions, and the highway setting gives an idea whether they understand what it means to overtake another car: can they effectively react to other drivers and their manoeuvers?"
For training, patients drive in a specially equipped car on a course projected on a large screen in front of them. Mistakes are monitored both by computer and an observing evaluator. Patients using simulator training were more likely both to pass the driver's test and to retain the skill level achieved in training.
The possibilities to apply simulator training to other areas are endless, according to Dr. Akinwuntan. For example, the simulator could be used to help determine the types of driving skills affected at different stages of Parkinson's disease and how interventions like deep brain stimulation help people overcome some of the problems.
Dr. Akinwuntan also plans to help develop a unit at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) that would use simulators and virtual reality systems to assist doctors and therapists in determining the challenges patients face after leaving the hospital. "Such information could be used to modify interventions or influence the rehabilitation programmes of patients", Dr. Akinwuntan stated.