Babies with spina bifida drive robots

November 16, 2009 There are three types of the condition. In Occulta Spina Bifida, a small defect or gap in a few of the small bones of the spine causes subtle, progressive motor deterioration that is often unnoticed until later childhood or adulthood. Meningocele Spina Bifida occurs when spinal protective coatings come through the open part of the spine and fill with cerebrospinal fluid. Myelomeningocele Spina Bifida -- the most serious type -- takes place when spinal nerves come through the open part of the spine, causing severe disabilities. A few tools have arisen to help those affected with the condition be able to move with ease by using the upper body to propel oneself.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS: A team of University of Delaware researchers are the first to conduct research on babies with mobility impairments and robots. They created a robot, UD1, which allows babies with disabilities to navigate their environment. Some of the infants involved in the study have conditions such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and autism. "This work being done is very important because much of an infant's development, both brain and behavior, emerges as thousands of experiences each day that arise as babies independently move and explore their world," Dr. Galloway explained to Ivanhoe.

It was once thought that a baby could not operate a wheelchair until the age of three, but researchers are developing miniature power chairs that are easily operated by a joystick. Babies as young as 6 months can operate the chair. Cole Galloway, Ph.D., of the physical therapy department at the University of Delaware in Newark, says a baby at six months can figure out which of two joysticks makes a toy far away move closer. Dr. Galloway also has a lot of quantitative evidence that shows that mobility is a causal factor in increased cognition and perception.

FUTURE OUTLOOK: Dr. Galloway is currently looking for solutions to the problem of babies outgrowing the chairs. He is exploring the possibility of a retrofit kit that would enable the reuse of existing power chairs by outfitting them so that the robotics would fit the growing child. The University of Delaware is also working on ways to make the chair smaller so it is more mobile in the home.

Dr. James C. (Cole) Galloway
Department of Physical Therapy
University of Delaware
(302) 831-3697

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