Bioethics Blogs

Robotic Exoskeleton Could Be Right Step Forward for Kids with Cerebral Palsy

More than 17 million people around the world are living with cerebral palsy, a movement disorder that occurs when motor areas of a child’s brain do not develop correctly or are damaged early in life. Many of those affected were born extremely prematurely and suffered brain hemorrhages shortly after birth. One of the condition’s most common symptoms is crouch gait, which is an excessive bending of the knees that can make it difficult or even impossible to walk. Now, a new robotic device developed by an NIH research team has the potential to help kids with cerebral palsy walk better.

What’s really cool about the robotic brace, or exoskeleton, which you see demonstrated above, is that it’s equipped with computerized sensors and motors that can detect exactly where a child is in the walking cycle—delivering bursts of support to the knees at just the right time. In fact, in a small study of seven young people with crouch gait, the device enabled six to stand and walk taller in their very first practice session!

For people with cerebral palsy, crouch gait is now treated with a variety of approaches, often including wearing orthotic ankle braces that help to stabilize their legs. Still, about half of kids with cerebral palsy can’t walk by early adulthood. Their muscles simply can’t keep up with their growing bodies.

That’s led to development of many robotic training devices, though most are still restricted to use in a supervised clinical setting. In the new study, led by Thomas Bulea at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, the team wanted to develop a wearable system for potential home use to help keep more kids walking as they grow into adulthood.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.