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Advanced exoskeleton puts children with spinal muscular atrophy on their feet

Spinal muscular atrophy is one of the most serious degenerative neuromuscular disesases in children, with very high mortality rates in the affected population. We don’t have a cure for this condition and there is no treatment in sight, but this world’s first exoskeleton for children could make a world of difference for a non-negligible number of them…

Original news release was issued by CSIC.

Spinal muscular atrophy is one of the most serious degenerative neuromuscular disesases in children, with very high mortality rates in the affected population. We don’t have a cure for this condition and there is no treatment in sight, but this world’s first exoskeleton for children could make a world of difference for a non-negligible number of them.

The frame that helps children walk was jointly designed and patented by CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) and Marsi Bionics, but it does more than just put them on their feet. Spinal muscular atrophy causes gradual general muscle weakness, but the subsequent inability to walk from an early age brings about a host of other issues. These include escoliosis and osteoporosis, which also cause lung disfunction, making any respiratory infection potentially critical. Enabling children with muscular atrophy to stand up and walk greatly reduces the risk of additional complications.

The brace consists of long support rods, or orthoses, which are adjusted to fit around the child’s legs and torso. In the joints, a series of motors mimic human muscles and give the child the necessary strength to stand upright and walk. Finally, a series of sensors, a movement controller, and a battery with 5 hours of life complete the system.

“The number one drawback in developing this type of paediatric 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”, explains Elena García, from the Automatics and Robotics Centre, a CSIC/Politechnic Univerity of Madrid.

This exoskeleton could greatly improve the quality of life and life expectancy of people with spinal muscular atrophy, only few of which currently manage to reach adulthood. However, it is aimed at ages between 3-14, rendering it unusable for those who suffer from the most severe of the three types of the disease who usually don’t make it through over 18 months.

It’s no cure, but is it the next best thing? For sure. Here’s to hoping that the frames can be put into clinical practice in the not too distant future.

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