Multiple Sclerosis Can Cause Danger Behind the Wheel

From the WebMD Archives

April 23, 2001 -- People with multiple sclerosis may be at greater risk of accidents because of slower reaction times, according to research reported in the April 24 issue of Neurology.

"Most people can see how physical factors can affect driving performance. But our results indicate that [mental] problems can also play a significant role," researcher John DeLuca, PhD, ABPP, tells WebMD.

"This is not to suggest that persons with MS should not drive, [but mental] factors need to be included when decisions are made regarding driving capacity." DeLuca is the director of neuroscience research at the Kessler Medical Rehabilitation Research and Education Corporation in West Orange, N.J.

If the findings in this study concern you, or you have other questions about MS, go to WebMD's Multiple Sclerosis board moderated by Peg Shepherd, RN, PhD.

While physical problems in MS have long been recognized, doctors now realize that about half to two-thirds of patients also have difficulty with mental functions such as thought processing. In other conditions affecting memory and thinking, including Alzheimer's disease and head injury, driving can be risky. This study is the first to examine driving hazards associated with impaired mental function in MS.

"As for people with a range of other medical conditions, such as epilepsy, [not] all persons with MS [are] potentially unfit to drive," Marian Scarrabelotti, PhD, a psychologist at the Canberra Hospital in Woden, Australia, tells WebMD. "If there are concerns about driving competence, these should be addressed by appropriate individual assessment."

DeLuca's team gave two different computerized driving tests to 13 MS patients with abnormal tests of mental functioning, 15 individuals with MS but no signs of mental difficulty, and 17 healthy people of similar age and driving experience.

Response time to conditions resembling those in typical traffic was slightly slower in the MS patients with mental impairment. More than one-third were at moderate to high risk for driving accidents, even though they did not have significant physical limitations. All participants were under age 55 and had a valid driver's license.

"Before testing, many subjects expressed concerns about their driving abilities," researcher Maria T. Schultheis, PhD, a neuropsychology and neuroscience fellow at Kessler, tells WebMD. "These findings should empower individuals with MS to discuss this very sensitive topic with their doctors."

Future studies should examine greater numbers of patients in real-life driving situations, according to Massimo Filippi, MD, who reviewed the study for WebMD. Future research should "investigate how physical and mental impairment interact in limiting driving skills in MS, and see whether driving skill impairment changes over time," says Filippi, director of the Neuroimaging Research Unit at the Scientific Institute and University Ospedale San Raffaele in Milan, Italy.