Stress hor­mone may drive risk-tak­ing by teen mo­torists

Daily Trust - - HEALTH -

Teens whose brain chem­istry is less af­fected by stress­ful sit­u­a­tions could be at in­creased risk for car crashes, a small Cana­dian study sug­gests.

Safe-driv­ing teens ap­pear to have higher lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol, said study au­thor Marie Claude Ouimet, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of medicine and health sci­ences at the Univer­sity of Sher­brooke, in Que­bec.

The brain calls for the re­lease of cor­ti­sol as part of its “fight-or­flight” re­sponse to stress­ful or dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. In the study, teens more likely to crash or come close to crash­ing a car tended to have less cor­ti­sol in their sys­tem -- in­di­cat­ing that their re­sponse to a risky sit­u­a­tion may be blunted in some way, re­searchers say.

“It tells us that maybe some people are more neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cally pre­dis­posed to risk-tak­ing, or maybe less able to change their driv­ing as a re­sult of ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Ouimet.

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion says traf­fic crashes are one of the leading causes of death world­wide for people aged 15 to 29, with the risk at its high­est dur­ing the first months af­ter teens re­ceive their li­censes, ac­cord­ing to back­ground in­for­ma­tion pro­vided in the study.

Us­ing cor­ti­sol to track stress re­sponse, of­fi­cials in the fu­ture may be able to de­ter­mine whether cer­tain teens need more train­ing to re­duce their risk of crashes, Ouimet sug­gested.

She and her col­leagues tracked 42 vol­un­teers in the United States, all aged 16, for the first 18 months af­ter they re­ceived their driver’s li­cense.

At the start of the study, the re­searchers mea­sured each teen’s stress re­sponse by ask­ing them to solve a se­ries of math prob­lems, telling them that $60 would be awarded to the per­son with the high­est score.

Doc­tors took saliva sam­ples from teens to mea­sure their cor­ti­sol lev­els be­fore and af­ter the math prob­lems, and used those sam­ples to es­ti­mate each kid’s re­sponse to stress.

The teens were then let loose on the roads, in cars that mea­sured their driv­ing be­hav­ior us­ing a se­ries of sen­sors, cam­eras and GPS.

Re­searchers found that the teens with a higher cor­ti­sol re­sponse to stress were less likely to crash or ex­pe­ri­ence a near crash, ac­cord­ing to the re­sults pub­lished on­line April 7 in the jour­nal JAMA Pe­di­atrics.

Teens with a greater stress re­sponse also ex­pe­ri­enced a faster de­cline in their crash/near crash rate over time, in­di­cat­ing that their driv­ing safety im­proved more quickly than that of teens with a low cor­ti­sol re­sponse to stress.

The gen­der of the driver did not mat­ter -- the driv­ing risk of both boys and girls ap­peared linked to their cor­ti­sol lev­els, the study found.

“This might help ex­plain why some people are more pre­dis­posed to risk and less able to change their be­hav­ior as a re­sult of ex­pe­ri­ence,” Ouimet said. “If you do not ex­pe­ri­ence stress in a stress­ful sit­u­a­tion, then maybe it means that if you’re very stressed you’re more likely to learn from that ex­pe­ri­ence and not want to re­peat it.”

How­ever, par­ents should not ex­pect to see a test avail­able any­time soon to de­ter­mine their teens’ driv­ing risk, said Dr. Karen Shee­han, med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the In­jury Preven­tion and Re­search Cen­ter at Lurie Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal of Chicago.

“As in­trigu­ing as their re­search re­sults are, it is too soon to say we have a clin­i­cally use­ful marker to use to screen teens for in­creased risk of crashes,” Shee­han said. “The re­sults do help re­mind us that ev­ery teen is dif­fer­ent in their risk-tak­ing be­hav­iors and/or their re­sponse to stress, and as we teach them to drive we need to keep this in mind. Some teens may need more su­per­vised driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence than oth­ers be­fore they are ready to drive solo.”

Al­though the study tied lower cor­ti­sol re­sponse to stress to higher risk of car crashes, it did not prove cause-and-ef­fect.

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