An exoskeleton has been developed specifically for children with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that affects the the motor neurons which control muscle movement, and enabling them to walk for up to five hours — in some cases for the first time.
There are also plans for it to be used in physiotherapy in hospitals to prevent the secondary effects associated with the loss of mobility from spinal muscular atrophy.
Developed by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the 12kg exoskeleton is built from aluminum and titanium, and has long support rods that fit around the child's legs and torso that can be adjusted as they grow.
There are five motors in each leg that mimic human muscles, helping the child stand and move. In addition to sensors and a movement controller, there is direct user control over all five motors. The exoskeleton detects the slightest intent of muscle movement and responds accordingly.
"The number one drawback in developing this type of pediatric exoskeleton is that the symptoms of neuromuscular illness — such as spinal muscular atrophy — change over time," said Elena Garcia, senior researcher at the Automatics and Robotics Center in Madrid.
"That's why it's fundamental to have an exoskeleton capable of independently adapting to these changes," she continued. "Our model includes intelligence joints which alter the brace's rigidity automatically and adapt to the symptoms of each individual child at whenever required."
Approximately one in 6,000 babies born is affected with spinal muscular atrophy, and about one in 40 people are genetic carriers. It causes progressive general muscular weakness, leading to scoliosis and osteoporosis, lung dysfunction and other complications. There is a high mortality rate, and no cure.
This exoskeleton is aimed at children aged three to 14, and is currently in the preclinical phase.