Reaching for a toy to play with is second nature to most children. However, children with cerebral palsy (CP) have motor skills and muscle control challenges daily, making simple playtime an opportunity for therapy.
Approximately three percent of children born in the United States have some form of CP, and 60 percent of children with CP have limited or reduced arm function. On-going therapy can improve function, but therapy success often rests on a child’s compliance with a home exercise program. So how does a therapist make therapy fun? Robots may be the answer.
Dr. Yu-Ping Chen, professor of physical therapy, has used virtual reality (VR) as a therapy tool for CP patients for many years. She first used a commercially available robot to see if children with CP would interact with robots to play VR games. Now, with a new three-year $599,724 grant from the National Institute on Disability Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), she hopes to combine robotics and VR into an affordable tool to increase home therapy compliance.
“When we started working with robots seven years ago, they were not very user-friendly,” said Dr. Chen. Now technological progress makes robots easier to integrate into daily life like voice-the activated device Alexa.
Dr. Chen’s latest research project, THRIVE (Therapeutic Humanoid Robot in Virtual Environment), collaborates with long-time research partner Dr. Ayanna Howard, a former Georgia Tech researcher, to help children ages 6 to 12 use less expensive devices. Dr. Howard and her postdoctoral research assistant are tweaking Atlanta-built robots customized for the research study.
Children are naturally drawn to the VR games used in therapy. Still, the amount of rehabilitation needed to improve arm function goes way beyond the hour or two of structured treatment the child receives weekly. Often busy parents, who may be working or raising other children, don’t have the time to devote to daily exercise.
“Relying on the clinical time is not enough. These children don’t have sufficient usage to improve their movement,” said Dr. Chen. “They will grow, and during puberty, they kind of regress because their strength cannot catch up to their body weight.”
The robot becomes a playmate and a coach, encouraging the child to use the device, providing feedback on their efforts, and even freeing parents from therapy time.
“We don’t see the robot replacing the parent’s role, but it can decrease the burden of the parents. It’s really a better home exercise platform,” said Dr. Chen.
Because of the model’s low price, around $600 to $700, parents whose children are enrolled in the study may be able to purchase their child’s robot at the end of the project to continue therapy on their own. Robots used in previous studies cost upwards of $10,000 each.
The short-term goal is to see if children using THRIVE will improve arm function over improvement in children using only human-led VR therapy. Dr. Chen’s long-term goal is to determine the feasibility of having THRIVE as the home exercise platform for children with CP. So, robots may provide therapy for your child instead of cleaning your house or playing music.
Department of Physical Therapy
Yu-Ping Chen researches innovative intervention physical therapy to improve upper-extremity function in children with developmental disabilities, particularly children with cerebral and early intervention in treating high-risk infants. Dr. Chen also studies low-cost means of detecting developmental delay in infants who use atypical reaching or object exploratory behaviors.