Robots Help Heal Kids with Cerebral Palsy

Most kids love robots. So the idea that a kid with cerebral palsy (CP) could improve the way he or she walks with the help of a robot is just brilliant.
Fortunately for the half-a-million children with CP, engineers at Columbia University have created a way to do just that. The hope is that this new technology, coupled with physical therapy principles can help young people with gait issues learn to walk without causing lasting harm to joint and bone.

The new technology was tested by a team at Columbia Engineering led by Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering and of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine. It is a robotic training method that improves posture and walking in children with “crouch gait” by enhancing their muscle strength and coordination. Crouch gait is caused by impairment and weakness in the muscles and often causes the knee joint to wear out prematurely.

Researchers worked with six children with crouch gait over the six-week trial using a Tethered Pelvic Assist Device (TPAD) invented in Agrawal’s Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Laboratory). The lightweight, wearable mechanism holds the pelvis in an optimal position while the subject strolls on a treadmill. Additional weight in this device allows the child to build muscle, while the repetitive action helps to retain the activity of soleus muscles.

In just six weeks, the team found that the children’s coordination and muscle strength had improved. They also noted that muscle coordination and upright posture was enhanced. Step length, range of motion, heel-to-toe pattern, and toe clearance all showed improvement. They found that their training was effective; it both enhanced the children’s upright posture and improved their muscle coordination.

Based on the success of this initial trial, more research is in the works. If all goes well, children with CP may be spending more time with robots–and learning to improve the way they walk, and their quality of life!

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