Driving research unlocks health insights

March 27, 2024

Three Minute Thesis Competition winner Sai Santosh Reddy Danda’s research with CECS Professor Yi Lu Murphey shows links between current driving behavior and future dementia risk.

Sai Santosh Reddy Danda, CECS graduate student
Congrats to UM-Dearborn's Three-Minute Thesis winner Sai Santosh Reddy Danda. Photo/Kristin Palm

Highway ramps are an important part of civic infrastructure. But a UM-Dearborn graduate researcher says data shows they also have connections to a growing worldwide health concern.

Using UM-Dearborn-developed computer programs, Sai Santosh Reddy Danda is looking at drivers’ everyday patterns. Danda says driving behavior may indicate if someone has a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, which is a brain disorder that erodes memory and thinking skills.

“Alzheimer's affects millions of people. When we do day-to-day tasks, there has to be a marker or patterns we exhibit that can help identify if someone is more prone to developing Alzheimer’s in the future,” says Danda, who is advised by Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Yi Lu Murphey and works as a research assistant in Murphey’s lab. “Medical testing is expensive, but early detection is important. So are there behaviors we exhibit that can help us identify who is more at risk? My research shows that there are.”

Yi Lu Murphey
Professor Yi Lu Murphey

Working on the multi-year study with Murphey and Michigan Medicine, Danda had participants  install devices in their cars to track acceleration, speed, respiratory rate, heart rate and more. Over the course of a month, the devices collected driving data of the participants traversing familiar routes.

Danda says all research participants, who are age 65 and over, had PET scan results that showed amyloids, a naturally occurring body protein that’s toxic to brain cells in abnormal levels. The study participants were then put into two groups: one with higher amounts of amyloids (amyloid positive) and with small amounts (amyloid negative). To be clear, no one in the study had an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Danda says. But it is long believed that amyloid plaques — the build-up of amyloids — is a defining characteristic of the disease. “Wouldn’t you want to know if you were more at risk? If someone knew they were exhibiting higher-risk behaviors, it may give motivation to change unhealthy habits that may play a role in Alzheimer’s risk like smoking, lack of exercise or poor diet,” Danda says.

Analyzing the driving behavior — like how often and aggressively people merge off a ramp and their speed — he’s noted a pattern in biomarkers in the amyloid positive group, like having a higher heart rate or skin temperature when driving on and off the ramp. Danda says data analysis shows the higher-risk group exhibits more aggressive driving and stress than the amyloid negative group.

He’s assisted Murphey with her work for almost two years now. He earned his data science master’s degree from UM-Dearborn in 2023 and is now completing the first year of his Ph.D. in electrical, electronics and computer engineering here. In addition to analyzing data and looking for patterns, Danda develops computer programs for Murphey’s research programs that collect data. “Dr. Murphey has made such a difference in my life. She has 40 years of experience and she’s shared her knowledge and connections with me,” Danda says. “Through her, I’ve met Michigan Medicine doctors and researchers. I’ve met automotive industry professionals. I would not be where I am today without her guidance. She’s prepared me to work in a highly competitive results-driven research field.”

Presenting his findings so far, Danda won the Office of Graduate Studies’ Three Minute Thesis Competition earlier this month. The competition provides an opportunity for graduate-level students to share their research in three minutes or less in an uncomplicated and easy-to-understand way. Danda will represent the university at the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools regional competition from April 3 to 5 in St. Louis. “I wanted to get more experience in presenting, and I was very grateful that this opportunity was available on campus,” he says. “I’m from India and English is my second language. It was a good way to practice my English. And, as a researcher, I’ll need to present at conferences, so it is important to take any opportunity to practice presentation and communication skills.”

Photo of 2024 3MT participants
Participants in the 3MT Competition at UM-Dearborn were, from left, Elie Rizk, Siddhi Baravkar, Sai Santosh Reddy Danda, Kais Riani, Nilakshi Pokharkar, Lilit Avetisyan, Shahid Aziz Khan, Michael Dolan, Zachery Hurd, Venus Kakdarvishi and Dasol Han.

Encouraged by Murphey, Danda also submitted his research abstract to present at the international Alzheimer's Association’s conference this summer. The conference attracts top researchers, clinicians and dementia professionals.

Danda says he has gotten experience in cutting-edge technology and research while at UM-Dearborn. “As a kid, I’d play video games and noticed the ones I liked playing, like sports or racing games, had statistics and data patterns that factored into performance. So I knew I wanted to go into a field that included this type of thinking and I came to UM-Dearborn for graduate school because of the faculty expertise and because Michigan is an automotive hub. I knew coming to UM-Dearborn would give me the education I needed to succeed, but it’s exceeded my expectations.”

Looking toward the future, Danda continues to be interested in data gathering for automotive and health applications. But he also wants to be sure he is doing something that advances knowledge and makes the world a better place. “Using research data, I want to provide good technologies to help serve the community,” he says. “I know I’m not doing surgery or anything like that, but research like this has the potential to decrease patient death and to increase awareness and quality of life. No matter what I do in the future, I want the main purpose of it to be about the betterment of the world we live in.”

Story by Sarah Tuxbury.