Have Scientists Found the Key to an Elite Racer’s brain? A Closer Look at the Retrospenial Cortex

Driving a race car on the limit is one of the most fantastic examples of the human brain’s ability to adapt and adopt a completely unique task and excel at it. I can’t stress enough what an incredible piece of hardware the brain is. Take a moment to consider that there isn’t really an activity like driving in the natural environment, yet the brain can figure it all out and make sense of it.  The brain has to perform a staggering amount of functions when driving like processing sound as well as visual input while computing a myriad of other rather mysterious phenomena.

This is why it’s becoming a fascinating subject for neuroscientists (8) and they are starting to make some rather startling discoveries. Giulio Bernardi et al in their paper titled ‘It’s not all in your car: functional and structural correlates of exceptional driving skills in professional racers’ (1) found something that could change the way we look at race drivers.

What they found, among a number of other things (which we will talk about later), was that race drivers have a greater density of grey matter in some brain regions over non-race drivers. Not just that, the more proficient race drivers had more of the grey stuff than the less proficient race drivers in their Retrosplenial Cortex.

Moreover, some of these brain regions, including the retrosplenial cortex, also had an increased grey matter density in professional car drivers. Furthermore, the retrosplenial cortex, which has been previously associated with the storage of observer-independent spatial maps, revealed a specific correlation with the individual driver’s success in official competitions.”

Before we get too excited, we need to tone it down a notch and highlight that this is just one study and it’s a correlation with a relatively small number of subjects. It doesn’t mean that because your brain looks one way, you won’t be any good. Yet, it’s quite the discovery and it allows us to explore and discuss exactly what it takes to be a top-level driver from the perspective of brain function. But can we really tell how good someone is by looking at an fMRI scan?

What will follow is a description of the functions of the Retrospenial Cortex as well as the potential for future understanding for developing a neuro focussed driving model.

 

The Retrospenial Cortex (RSC)

Neuroscience is a very complex subject and we must start firstly by talking about the basic nature of brain function.  An area of the brain having an associated function does not mean that one area is solely responsible for said function. The brain is a hive of interconnected parts that work in harmony and it still remains somewhat of a mystery. To highlight this point, there have been people who have suffered Asphasia (the loss of speech ability) due to a stroke, who have remarkably retained the ability to sing (2). So despite having a legion in the ‘speech’ centre of their brain, these individuals could still vocalise words. So when talking about the RSC we need to keep in mind that this part of the brain is still a bit of an enigma and is associated with a number of brain functions.

The Retrospenial Cortex historically has been associated with spatial-based tasks. It’s a massively interconnected part of the brain with connections to the Visual Cortex, Parietal Cortex, Prefrontal Cortex, Cingulate Cortex, Laterodorsal Cortex, Anterior Thalamic Cortex, Parahippocampal regions, Subiculum and the Hippocampus. And in recent research it would appear that the Retrospenial Cortex and interconnected regions may play a vital role in high-level racing driving.

In their study Giulio Bernardi et al found that when watching onboard  “the motor control and spatial navigation devoted areas (of racing drivers), including premotor/motor cortex, striatum, anterior, and posterior cingulate cortex and retrosplenial cortex, precuneus, middle temporal cortex, and parahippocampus” all became activated (observed via fMRI). In effect the race drivers were simulating driving in their head while watching the video.  In time we hope that exploring these regions will allow us to develop models for the driving task within the brain. So it is clear race that drivers place a big cognitive effort into these regions of the brain, and it would appear the Retrospenial Cortex is at the centre of it.

 

Michiel H.G.Claessen all (3) discovered that lesion damage related to the RSC has been associated with impairment of processing landmarks as well as assessing distances between them. Epstein et al (4) confirmed the RSC’s role in location and orientation. Iaria et al (5) furthered the understanding of the RSC “In conjunction with the hippocampus, the retrosplenial cortex was active during both the formation and the use of the cognitive map…..these findings suggest that, while navigating within the environment, the retrosplenial cortex complements the hippocampal contribution to topographical orientation by updating the individual’s location as the frame of reference changes.”

 

Navigating space and orientation seem to be central to RSC function. Yet still it remains somewhat of a mystery. The RSC’s role in memory retrieval is not fully understand and many complex theories have been put forward. In a race context it is worthwhile to consider what systems are required.  Spatial maps need to be retrieved as the car moves through space. The driver also needs to be highly sensitive to the yaw plane and also landmark orientation.  Head Direction Cells (7) have also been associated with the RSC, but more research is needed to fully understand them and whether they play a role in human navigation.

 

The RSC may also play a role in eye strategy as the relationship between landmarks and orientation seem particularly important.The RSC has reciprocal connections to the Visual Cortex so this is an area of interest that needs to be investigated further. We know drivers employ Returnative Tangent Point Fixation during  simulated driving (6) which seems closely associated with spatial orientation and the function of the RSC, so eye strategy may be correlated with the function and development of this area.


If it is the case that more successful drivers have a larger density of grey matter in the RSC, then the speed of creating spatial maps as well as orientation and yaw sensitivity may be higher and more efficient. It’s interconnectivity with other brain regions, particularly ones related to race driving, allow us to start building a better model of elite driver performance. However the enigmatic nature of the RSC means it’s difficult to say with certainty the exact role it plays and what functions benefit from increased grey matter for race driving.

The limited nature of the Giulio Bernardi et al study, due to the small sample of drivers, means it’s very difficult to draw a conclusion about why there is an increased density of grey matter in the more proficient drivers. We can speculate that more proficient drivers have had more practice, and thus any neurological differences can be explained by neural plasticity (9), and we can also speculate that some drivers are born with innate qualities that predispose them to increased activity in the RSC. Any future studies would need to take into account all the variables that are in place in motorsport – cost, type of racing (multi-make vs single make), amount of competitors, years practiced etc. – and discuss the effect they may have in determining skill level and race results.

 

Further Discussion

The RSC’s function is one aspect to race driving. It’s one part of the picture. It would appear that the remotor/motor cortex, striatum, anterior, and posterior cingulate cortex, precuneus, middle temporal cortex, and parahippocampus regions all have important roles to play in forming a general understanding of how race drivers develop the skill to perform at a high level. They are by no means the only regions involved however.

We need to further understand how drivers develop a model to maximise their speed in a car. What cues they use, how memories are formed and retrieved, how a driver discriminates between driving different cars, and other factors such as yaw sensitivity, visual processing, motor inputs and the role of emotion.

 

It would appear racing drivers’ brains place a cognitive investment in the RSC and its interconnectivity within the brain should inspire future discussion and discovery.


1 – Giulio Bernardi et al. 2014: It’s not all in your car: functional and structural correlates of exceptional driving skills in professional racers  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4227572/
2 – PRI. 2015: These stroke victims can’t speak, but they’re still singing https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-01-02/these-stroke-victims-cant-speak-theyre-still-singing

3 – Michiel H.G.Claessen. 2017: A systematic investigation of navigation impairment in chronic stroke patients: Evidence for three distinct types https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028393217302488?via%3Dihub

4 – Epstein RA et al. 2007: Where am I now? Distinct roles for parahippocampal and retrosplenial cortices in place recognition.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17553986

5- Iaria G. 2007: Retrosplenial and hippocampal brain regions in human navigation: complementary functional contributions to the formation and use of cognitive maps.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17298595

6 – GTS RS. 2017: Advanced Eye Strategy For Elite Racing Drivers https://gts-rs.co.uk/2017/11/22/advanced-eye-strategy-elite-racing-drivers/

7 – Jonathan P. Shine et al. 2017: The Human Retrosplenial Cortex and Thalamus Code Head Direction in a Global Reference Frame https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5321500/

8 – Otto Lappi. 2015: The Racer’s Brain – How Domain Expertise is Reflected in the Neural Substrates of Driving https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00635/full

9 – Bogdan Draganski et al. 2004: Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training  https://www.nature.com/articles/427311a

 

Author: Alan Dove – GTS RS Driver Performance Consultant – [email protected] – 07549994245