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Robotic device could make walking easier for children with cerebral palsy

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Engineers have developed a lightweight, wearable robotic device that provides neuromuscular training while making walking easier for children with cerebral palsy.

Mechanical engineer and inventor Zach Lerner, assistant professor in Northern Arizona University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been awarded $2.1m by the National Institutes of Health.

Lerner said the funding will enable him to launch a five-year clinical trial to test a treatment strategy for children with cerebral palsy (CP) using his patented and patent-pending inventions comprising a lightweight, wearable robotic device that provides neuromuscular training while making walking easier.

“The project builds directly on the work we’ve been doing at NAU for the past five years, developing an adaptive ankle exoskeleton device that offers a lightweight, portable and effective way to improve mobility in children with CP.

“We completed technological evaluations and the initial clinical feasibility and pilot studies necessary to collect the preliminary data for this randomized controlled trial (RCT), which is the gold standard for clinical trials looking to establish the efficacy of a new intervention relative to standard of care.”

A child’s ability to walk effectively is essential to physical health and general well-being. Nearly four in 1,000 children are afflicted with CP, a neurological disorder that affects muscle control and coordination and often makes walking extremely difficult.

Although most treatment strategies have proven insufficient, one of the most promising potential new treatment options is the use of battery-powered wearable robots, or exoskeletons, that provide home-based gait training and mobility assistance.

Lerner said the devices have the potential to revolutionise the rehabilitation of patients with neuromuscular deficiencies, significantly decreasing their lifelong suffering and the resulting economic burdens placed on their families.

“There is broad clinical consensus that dysfunction of the plantar flexors, or calf muscles, is a primary contributor to slow, inefficient and crouched walking patterns in individuals with CP.

“Our study will focus on two hypotheses: that targeted ankle resistance training will produce larger improvements in lower-extremity motor control, gait mechanics and clinical measures of mobility compared to standard physical therapy and standard gait training, and that adaptive ankle assistance will result in significantly greater capacity and performance compared to walking with ankle-foot orthoses and walking wearing just shoes.

“The study will explore participant characteristics (for example, age, gender, GMFCS level, walking speed, spasticity rating) that are associated with the greatest improvement in outcomes following each intervention to provide guidance for future clinical and at-home implementation, establishing fundamental knowledge on the ability for adaptive ankle interventions to treat walking impairment relative to standard of care in CP.”

Photo Credit – Northern Arizona University

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