June 10, 2016

Spanish Researchers Unveil Pediatric Exoskeleton

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Five-year-old Álvaro, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, walks toward his parents during an exoskeleton test. Photograph by Joan Costa, courtesy of CSIC.

The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) has unveiled a pediatric-size exoskeleton. The frame helps children with spinal muscular atrophy to walk and aims to prevent the setting in of sclerosis, which results from a loss of agility. It will also be used in physiotherapy settings to prevent the secondary effects associated with mobility loss, such as scoliosis and osteoporosis, which in turn can cause lung dysfunction. The technology has been jointly patented and licensed by CSIC and its spin-off, Marsi Bionics, Madrid, Spain; it is currently in the preclinical phase.

The brace consists of long support rods that are adjusted to fit around the child’s legs and torso. A series of motors in the joints mimic human muscles and give the child the necessary strength to stand upright and walk. A series of sensors, a movement controller, and a battery with a five-hour life complete the system.

“The number one drawback in developing this type of pediatric exoskeleton is that the symptoms of neuromuscular illnesses—such as spinal muscular atrophy—change over time, as much in the articulations as in the body. That’s why it’s fundamental to have an exoskeleton capable of independently adapting to these changes. Our model includes intelligent joints which alter the brace’s rigidity automatically and adapt to the symptoms of each individual child whenever required,” explained Elena García, PhD, with the CSIC/ Politechnic University of Madrid’s Automation and Robotics Center.

The exoskeleton is aimed at children between the ages of three and 14. With five motors in each leg (each requiring its own space to function), the minimum possible length of each leg is restricted. Furthermore, the unpredictability of involuntary body movements of children under age three have forced researchers to set a lower age limit for the device. “In other pathologies, which don’t restrict any joint movement and so require fewer motors, it would be possible to build a smaller frame,” García added.

Editor’s note: This story was adapted from materials provided by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).

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