Robotic exoskeleton can improve how kids with cerebral palsy walk

Some amazing work has been done over the past several years developing robotic exoskeletons that can aid adults with paralysis or mobility impairments by replacing the lost function of muscles to restore walking ability. A new project carried out by researchers at the National Institutes of Health is setting its sights a little lower, however. Literally. What NIH scientists have developed is an exoskeleton designed to help kids with cerebral palsy (CP), a neurological disorder that affects movement and coordination. In particular, the exoskeleton is intended to help with a prevalent type of cerebral palsy-induced walking disorder — also known as a gait pathology — called crouch gait.

“Rather than restoring lost function, our exoskeleton was designed to change the way children with crouch gait from CP walk,” Dr. Thomas Bulea, a staff scientist in the NIH rehabilitation medicine department, told Digital Trends. “The exoskeleton does this by tracking the child’s limbs and supplying motorized assistance for knee extension at the appropriate times of the walking cycle. These children have developed their crouched posture to compensate for the way their nervous system developed, and thus, it was unknown how they would respond to this new type of robotic assistance.”

Fortunately, the robotic assists turned out to work well. Of the seven kids outfitted with the robot leg exoskeletons as part of the NIH’s study, six demonstrated improved knee extension and were able to walk better with the additional robotic assistance. “Our results show that the exoskeleton can safely and effectively change the posture of a child while they wear it,” Bulea continued. “The exciting part is that the children’s muscle activity was preserved when they walked in this new way with the exoskeleton, suggesting that long-term use of this device might be a viable way to train a new walking pattern in this population.”

Given that increasing physical difficulties mean that roughly 50 percent of cerebral palsy sufferers stop walking by the time they reach adulthood, this correction of crouch gait at a young age could have a major lasting impact on mobility. “The next step is a long-term study of the exoskeleton for gait rehabilitation in children with CP,” Bulea said. “Our ultimate goal is to train these children to walk in a new way — thus the key remaining challenge is to translate the improved walking pattern we observed with the exoskeleton to walking without it.”

A paper describing the research was published this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine.