Robots and games aid disabled children

Biomedical engineers at New Jersey Institute of Technology will use new technology to help children with cerebral palsy improve their movements, reduce stiffness in their joints and live fuller lives.

Biomedical engineers at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) will use new technology to help children with cerebral palsy improve their movements, reduce stiffness in their joints and live fuller and more independent lives.

Small robots mounted on wheelchairs, interactive video games and a robotic arm that can be programmed to guide and aid human motion are a few of the technologies the engineers will use to help these children improve their muscular control and movements.

“Those of us without disabilities can’t really understand how much extra effort goes into doing the things of everyday life,” said Richard Foulds, PhD, an associate professor in the biomedical engineering department at NJIT. “In a nation of technological riches, there is no better way for engineers to use their creative talents than to find new methods and devices that help children with cerebral palsy overcome their daily barriers.”

Foulds is director of the newly formed Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) at NJIT, funded by a $4.75 million grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, in Washington, D.C. The grant, awarded on November 1, 2005, will run for five years.

The strength of the centre, said Foulds, is the synergy it will create between NJIT and its collaborating institutions: Children’s SpecializedHospital, Mountainside, the largest paediatric rehabilitation hospital in the USA; Rutgers-New Brunswick, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, (UMDNJ) Newark. Sergei Adamovich, PhD, assistant professor in the biomedical engineering at NJIT, and Bruno Mantilla, MD, a special lecturer in the same department, will serve as co-project directors for the centre.

Children with cerebral palsy have limited use of their arms due to the discoordination of their neural motor control and stiffness of their joints. The stiffness results from spasticity, the involuntary muscle tightness that occurs in about two-thirds of children with cerebral palsy. These difficulties interfere with the way these children walk, play and perform the manual tasks needed for studying, such as writing, typing or holding a book.

NJIT researchers have been working with a robotic arm, called the Haptic Master, to help stroke patients overcome spasticity and re-learn the movements they need to live independently; and this robot will be adapted so the children can use it. A child with cerebral palsy will hold onto the robot’s arm, which is programmed to perform intense, repetitive arm and finger motions. The children will do the exercises while watching virtual reality games on a computer – games that both guide their motions and make the therapy fun. They will also wear a computerised cable glove that helps them move their paralysed fingers. The repetitive motions and exercises will eventually retrain their brains so that the children will have better manual co-ordination, Foulds said. The HapticMaster could eventually become a common form of physical therapy for children with cerebral palsy, he added.

Researchers at the centre will create new interactive video games that can be played by children with cerebral palsy. The games will not use joysticks, which use only the hand, but will have components that involve entire body movements. These games will be customised for each child based on his or her therapist’s input, and will encourage children to have fun while they improve their motion skills.

Another approach the centre will use to reduce spasticity is to stimulate the balance system in the inner ear and generate neural signals that briefly cause the brain to send signals that relax the muscles. During the short period of time in which spasticity is also lowered, researchers will seek to understand how spasticity interferes with the children’s movement. “It may even be possible to make therapy more effective so that their muscular co-ordination may be improved for the long-term,” said Foulds.

Many children who use electric wheelchairs also have limited use of their arms and hands, Foulds said. Most are unable to move their arms through a full range of motion, and are thus unable to turn a door knob, get a glass of water or take a book from a shelf. The centre will use two new robots that can be mounted on wheelchairs and programmed to help the children better control their movements and accomplish everyday tasks.

Children who sit all day in wheelchairs, moreover, do not receive the same mechanical forces on the long bones of their legs as children who walk. These children are more prone to developing osteoporosis. The centre will study the bone loss in wheelchair users and develop a technology that applies mechanical forces on their long bones to help prevent osteoporosis.

New Jersey has a richness of rehabilitation resources that have been channelled into this new centre,” said Foulds. “We are poised to advance the understanding of paediatric disabilities and to improve the quality of new therapeutic techniques. The next five years will be both exciting and productive. Technology, backed with supporting research, offers the potential to change lives.”