Cerebral Palsy (CP) is one of the most common motor disabilities in America. Worldwide, the CDC cites a prevalence factor of as much as 4 in 1,000 births. The exact cause of CP is not known, but it appears to be related to brain damage that occurs either at birth or during the first three years of the child’s life. By impairing the child’s motor ability and muscle tone, CP makes it difficult and painful for the child to walk. Most are no longer able to walk at all by the time they reach the age of 30.
Engineers at Columbia University set out to improve the walking ability of children with CP. They were primarily focused on the abnormal gait which causes long-term damage and pain to their joints. The outcome of their research exceeded expectations offering very good news for the more than 500,000 children with cerebral palsy in the United States.
The researchers and engineers at Columbia worked with a study group of six boys who were between the ages of 9 to 19. All of them were exhibiting something known as “crouch gait”, which develops due to muscle deterioration. The robotic belt was filled with weights and attached to the boys who then walked on a treadmill. The weights actually made walking more difficult, but it was hoped that the robotic belt would strengthen the muscles in their calves. There were 15 sessions over the course of 6 weeks. During each session, the boys would walk once on the treadmill with the belt and once without it.
Developer Dr. Heakyung Kim says that they achieved even more than they hoped. At the end of the six-week training program, the boys demonstrated a completely different pattern of walking. Their strides were more normal in length and they were less flat-footed, all of which meant less frequent falls. One of the participants was able to give up his walker, needing only crutches.
Dr. Kim hopes that through this device, patients with Cerebral Palsy may gain an additional 20-30 years of walking ability.