Crawling is one of the first signs of healthy development in babies. When a child doesn’t start to crawl before the age of one, it can signal development deficits. In some rare cases, it may be a sign of cerebral palsy (CP), a neurological disorder that severely impacts muscle strength and movement. Around 10,000 babies born each year in the US will be affected by this incurable illness that can cause delayed development of the brain, muscles, and motor skills.
If you catch CP early enough, you can slow down the progression of the disease. And physical therapists can identify babies who could be at risk of developing CP by using predictive tests that look for signs of impaired motor control, such as being unable to lift their head or reach out with an arm.
At the University of Oklahoma, a team of researchers is working on an idea they believe could slow down the progression of the disease in these at-risk children: slipping babies into onesies that monitor their muscle movement, and have them ride around their living room on a robot.
One of the first phases of development babies experience is “motor babbling,” where they try out different motions with their arms or legs in some way and occasionally, something interesting happens, like the body might rotate or spin a little, says Andrew Fagg, an engineering professor at University of Oklahoma. Children at risk of developing CP “aren’t able to produce big forces. For them, during motor babbling, nothing happens. Then, they learn to stop trying,” he says. Fagg and his team are trying to ensure that their attempts to motor babble can be successful despite their weaker muscles. That, in turn, could slow down the onset of CP symptoms by rehabilitating muscle impairment before it worsens.
The baby lies on a soft leather, skateboard-sized plank, which attaches to a robot that arches over the sides of and extends behind the child. Meanwhile, a “kinematic capture suit,” designed by University of Oklahoma researchers, fixes a set of sensors to the back of a baby. The sensors pick up the positioning of the baby’s arms and legs to get information 50 times per second. “Not only is this a nice record of behavior over time, but what’s more interesting is that it also allows the robot to recognize that the baby is trying to make a crawling-like motion and it can then respond to assist the baby,” says Fagg. When the robot detects the infant trying to make crawl-like motions, it can steer the apparatus to move and help the infant explore its environment.
The team is currently in the midst of a study that has included over 40 participants over the last two years. Each of these infants — identified as being at risk for CP — spent 15 minutes a day, two times a week, for twelve weeks in the robot suit. Results are expected in nine months, when the study concludes.
An earlier prototype of the same robot was tested with around 12 kids and results showed marked improvement in their motor skills. “At the very least, we imagine this being a tool for therapists,” said Fagg, who says many parents have also expressed the interest in having such a device at home. However, the device is expensive —currently, each costs between $4,000 and $5,000—and it isn’t hitting the market for at least a few years. The research team still needs to demonstrate long-term effects and figure out the optimal amount of time infants need to spend with the machine to see results.