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Study at Florida Atlantic University looks at drug’s effect on driving

At 79, Alfred Zara became a human research subject. His motivation: stay in the driver’s seat as long as possible.

“If I were curbed, that would be the end of my golden years,” Zara said.

Certain that he has the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Zara joined a clinical drug trial at Florida Atlantic University’s Boca Raton campus. Designed by psychiatrist and research professor Peter Holland, the trial is the only one of its kind in the nation.

Through this research study, Holland hopes to find evidence that Forest Pharmaceutical’s Namenda can help preserve driving skills in patients with mild symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is a drug already approved by the FDA for moderate to severe cases of the disease,” Holland said. “Theoretically, Namenda has neuroprotective benefits. “So, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to demonstrate those benefits with driving skills in patients with very mild to mild Alzheimer’s disease?’ ”

Holland’s year-long study is placebo-controlled and double-blind. Half of the participants receive Namenda, while the other half take a placebo—sugar pill. Neither the research staff nor the subjects know whether the medication or a placebo is being taken.

Recruitment ads and fliers for the study highlight a concern about memory function without mentioning Alzheimer’s disease. Holland’s research coordinator Lori Fisher said study participants do not have to have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

“After an initial screening, candidates come to our office in the Biomedical College at FAU for a cognitive evaluation where we might determine evidence for a diagnosis,” Fisher said.

Only about half of the drivers with Alzheimer’s disease have been diagnosed, according to Holland.

“All you have to do is drive around South Florida to see that seniors are having difficulty behind the wheel with judgment and visual-spatial skills," he said. "Once a person is in moderate or severe stages of Alzheimer’s, they have lost their ability to drive safely. The earlier you intervene, the better. That is the reason for this study.”

Zara learned to drive when he was 8 years old, in 1937. At that time, he said, he couldn’t imagine that skill would ever be lost. But that skill is lost each year by thousands of Americans who develop age-related memory disorders, according to The Hartford and MIT Age Lab statistics used by Michelle Owens, research assistant and driving test administrator at Florida Atlantic University’s Memory and Wellness Center.

“Roughly 60 to 65 percent of the individuals who come in for driving evaluations pass our driving assessment,” Owens said. “By the time they come to us, they usually have some form of dementia. Within 2 years of a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, individuals are generally unable to drive.”

Zara made a living for 27 years in the wholesale bait and tackle business. In his retirement, he joined the South Florida Bass Fishing Club. When Zara isn’t home arguing with his wife about where he put his glasses, he’s usually gone fishing.

“Every day there is an argument about losing my glasses,” Zara said. “I am getting daily forgetful, but it hasn’t affected my driving yet. I drive 10 to 15 miles to Quiet Waters or Tradewinds Park to fish. It’s certainly farther than I can walk.”

Early intervention to maintain independence and driver safety is the goal of the FAU driving study. If Namenda helps patients with early Alzheimer’s safely drive, it could contribute to society as a whole by taking a burden off caregivers, and protecting drivers who share the road, Holland said.

People with Alzheimer’s disease eventually lose the ability to drive safely “due to problems with: judgment, multi-tasking, slowed reaction times, impaired spatial skills, and other cognitive deficits,” according to The Hartford’s collaborative study with the MIT Age Lab on Alzheimer’s disease and driving skills.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles notes that crash rates are 7.6 times higher for drivers suffering from cognitive impairment than drivers who do not have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Although Zara said he has not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the Alzheimer’s Association highlights family history, cardiovascular disease and head trauma as risk factors for developing the disease.

Zara is convinced his memory loss is a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease because his mother and father suffered from dementia, he had a heart attack in July 2005, and suffered a head injury six years ago when he and his wife moved from New Jersey to Lighthouse Point.




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