Robotic legs to help children with cerebral palsy

Robotic legs to help children with cerebral palsy

Kiwi children with cerebral palsy could be the first in the world to benefit from groundbreaking robotics research taking place at University of Auckland.

One in 500 babies in this country is born with the incurable condition, which affects movement and posture. But now a robot exoskeleton has been developed that could help them.

Sionann Murphy is very sporty.

"I try to do my best in everything that I possibly can," she says. "I push the limits through my body. It's my dream to be a paralympian in athletics and swimming."

The 10-year-old has a mild form of cerebral palsy. It's a condition marked by impaired muscle coordination and other disabilities, typically caused by damage to the brain before or at birth. 

It's this fighting spirit that has got Sionann an invitation to University of Auckland to meet engineer Dr Andrew McDaid.

He's leading a team of engineers and medical experts creating robotics devices, which aid with movement and build muscle.

"Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of childhood disabilities, so I was really interested in seeing if we could apply some of our robotics technologies to really helping these children have more function in everyday life," he says.

It's a very early stage prototype, but the robot exoskeleton won't just help them walk; it'll manipulate individual muscles like a therapist would.

"There are a lot of technologies going into it, so it can be simple for some to use. It can be low-cost and in the home. Really where the complexity is in the computational models, so we can take data from the sensors from the robot and then feed that into our therapy."

The team's research has greatly impressed the charity Cure Kids. It's put up $55,000 to help.

"This is obviously very early stage development, but it's not just science for science sake," says Cure Kids research innovation manager Tim Edmonds. "You've got fantastic scientists working on it, partnering with clinicians, but there's a real clinical application to it."

The team will soon launch a pilot study of the device involving five young CP sufferers.

"It's going to help kids like me and kids worse than me to help them walk, help them run, help them cycle – do anything they can," says Sionann.

And if Sianonn is anything to go by that'll make them unstoppable.

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