Oct 30, 2009 - Research

The Bad Driving Gene?


New research suggests that your skills behind the wheel may be affected by your genes.

To better understand the effects of a variant in the BDNF gene on motor skills learning, Steven Cramer and colleagues at UC Irvine tested 29 subjects in a driving simulator. Their results, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, might make you think twice about whom you go on your next road trip with.

Subjects sat in front of a screen with their hands firmly planted at “10 and 2” on a steering wheel and guided their “car” around a track, attempting to stay centered over a black line. The steering was tuned so that subjects had to begin turning before the screen actually changed.

Over the course of 15 trials, all of the study subjects got better at the driving task. But the seven people with a specific variant improved less than the others. When subjects returned to the lab four days later for a final lap, everyone had forgotten how to drive the simulator a little bit, but they did even worse.

“These people [the variant] make more errors from the get-go, and they forget more of what they learned after time away,” Cramer said in a press release.

The BDNF protein helps to regulate how nerve cells make new connections and maintain old ones. The variant, also known as the Val66Met, reduces the amount of BDNF available in the brain and has been linked to impaired learning and memory. Studies have shown that stroke victims with this variant don’t recover as well as those who lack it.

But there may be an upside: the variant seems to have a beneficial effect on cognition in people with Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, lupus and multiple sclerosis.

“It’s as if nature is trying to determine the best approach,” Cramer said. “If you want to learn a new skill or have had a stroke and need to regenerate brain cells, there’s evidence that having the variant is not good. But if you’ve got a disease that affects cognitive function, there’s evidence it can act in your favor. The variant brings a different balance between flexibility and stability.”

See Wired Science for more.

Stay in the know.

Receive the latest from your DNA community.