October 2017

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Robotic Device Helps Kids With Cerebral Palsy

NIH researchers have been developing a robotic device to help improve the way children with cerebral palsy walk.

Cerebral palsy is a brain disorder that affects muscle movement. Children with cerebral palsy have trouble walking, balancing, and standing up straight.

One of the most common signs of cerebral palsy is crouch gait, an excessive bending of the knees while walking. Leg braces, muscle injections, physical therapy, and leg surgery can help children with cerebral palsy improve their walking ability, but long-term problems often remain.

Dr. Thomas Bulea and his team of researchers at the NIH Clinical Center created a wearable robotic device, called an exoskeleton, to help kids straighten their legs as they walk.

Seven children, ages 5 to 19 years old, helped test the device. Each was able to walk at least 30 feet without a walking aid. After putting on the device, six of the seven children were better able to extend their knees. The children used their own muscles while walking with the device. They weren’t letting the exoskeleton do all the work to straighten their legs.

“The improvements in their walking, along with their preserved muscle activity, make us optimistic that our approach could train a new walking pattern in these children if deployed over an extended time,” Bulea says.