Cerebral palsy can result in moderate or severe symptoms that range from mobility issues and brain-related thinking problems to pain or seizures. Cerebral palsy is classified as a permanent movement disorder, sometimes genetic, sometimes caused by brain damage. Because movement can be extremely inhibited in those suffering from the disorder, new technology shows the potential to be a bright light illuminating a long, dark path sometimes without end.
Researchers out of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that operates in Bethesda, Maryland are providing kids who suffer from this disorder with mechanical exoskeletons to help them experience a range of motion that might otherwise be impossible for them to achieve, especially when confronted with longer distances that normally present a greater challenge. The researchers may have expected some pushback from the participating kids, but that’s not what happened. It turns out that everyone likes feeling superhuman every once in awhile. Thanks, Iron Man.
The biggest obstacle for kids who grow up with cerebral palsy can be the transition to adulthood. When you’re forced to walk with a crouched stance that isn’t atypical for palsy sufferers on a regular basis, it’s not uncommon to lose mobility as you grow older. Sometimes, walking becomes impossible as the years advance. The purpose of the exoskeleton is to increase the longevity of the bones, joints, muscles, and tendons by allowing the children to further extend their legs while they walk. It does this by wrapping the legs with metal supports that help manage the knee’s mobility during the rhythm that most of us maintain without thinking while we walk about.
Sometimes surgery can provide the same benefits, but a noninvasive approach is certainly always welcomed by parents and children alike. During routine surveillance of seven children during six separate visits, researchers were able to determine that the mechanical construct achieved the intended purpose: knee extension. Better yet, the exoskeleton didn’t do all the work. The children were still forced to use their own muscles to walk. This is an important step for the researchers because any surgery usually requires that muscles and tendons be lengthened. If muscle deterioration had occurred during the visits, then they would have failed in their goals.
The real proof of success comes next, though. Seven kids is a start, but it isn’t nearly enough to make any real conclusions. A larger trial in which many more children will don the exoskeletons will inevitably be conducted. The real difference is in the amount of time they have with the new technology though. While these exoskeletons were worn briefly, and only on a handful of occasions, the next study will occur with children who get to wear them for an entire year.
The team of researchers responsible for the project is also looking to expand to children with other mobility disabilities.