Monday, September 16, 2019

Slower Development of Working Memory in Adolescents Associated With Motor Vehicle Crashes

A person’s working memory—which helps one manage complex tasks and maintain attention when faced with distractions—is believed to be a critical element of safe driving. A study in JAMA Network Open has found that adolescents who were involved in a motor vehicle accident had slower development of their working memory than adolescents who were not involved in a crash.

“Monitoring WM [working memory] development across adolescence as part of routine assessment could help to identify at-risk drivers, as well as opportunities for intervention,” wrote Elizabeth A. Walshe, Ph.D., of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues. “Attention and driving-skill deficits due to insufficient [working memory] may be one of the most modifiable risk factors—via experience and skill training.”

Walshe and colleagues analyzed data from a longitudinal study of 118 youth in Philadelphia, who received regular assessments of working memory, sensation seeking, substance dependence, and more between the ages of 11 and 20. A follow-up survey on driving experience identified 84 participants who had a driver’s license and were included in the analysis, and 25 of these drivers reported they had been involved in at least one crash.

All 118 youth performed better on working memory tasks as they grew older, as reflected in their scores rising over time. Additional analysis revealed that working memory gains appeared to slow in the 25 drivers with a crash history; that is, their total score rose less and less each year as they aged. In contrast, the drivers with no crashes showed steady gains in their total scores over time. The youth involved with crashes reported more reckless driving behaviors (like speeding) on average; however, even when factoring in this difference, the authors found that adolescents with slower memory gains had a greater risk of crashing.

Other developmental traits such as the youths’ baseline working memory score, their IQ, or their impulsivity levels were not associated with car crashes, the authors noted.

The rate at which working memory develops “may be an important underlying mechanism of age-graded risk for crashes during adolescent development. However, we do not yet know whether or how [working memory] development may predict crashes and need to further investigate factors that lead to differential trajectories of growth in [working memory] to identify high-risk groups,” Walshe and colleagues wrote. “Future studies should also investigate the role of [working memory] development in the observed increased risk for unsafe driving and crashes among atypically developing populations (e.g., ADHD).”

(Image: iStock/LPETTET)

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