Ben Conner, a third-year MD/PhD student at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, is studying a robotic walking therapy for children with cerebral palsy (CP). His research is part of an interdisciplinary team housed at Northern Arizona University’s Biomechatronics Lab, which is led by Zachary Lerner, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering. The lab seeks to restore neuromuscular function and augment human ability through the design, control, and testing of robotic exoskeletons.
With custom designs and control schemes, the lab’s exoskeletons—which are relatively inexpensive and mobile devices—can serve multiple purposes. An assistive feature is designed to make walking easier for kids with CP. Using motors and a wireless control system worn at the waist, the exoskeleton works with leg muscles to propel the body forward and create a more normal walking pattern. Conner’s project is focused on a resistive feature to serve as a therapeutic intervention. The resistive feature focuses on re-training signals between the brain and the leg muscles to work more efficiently while walking.
“Kids with CP are weaker than their typically developing peers,” said Conner. “This is due to both smaller muscles and an inability to effectively fire those muscles. Using our device, we resist the push-off phase of walking, so that the kids are forced to recruit greater muscular force in order to take a step. With repetitive practice, we have found that this carries over to greater strength and muscle recruitment while walking without the exoskeleton on, making these kids faster with greater endurance.”
The training device would work to supplement current treatments for CP, which include medications such as muscle or nerve injections and oral muscle relaxants, physical therapy, and orthopedic surgery.