Around 1 in every 345 children in the United States is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, the CDC reveals. The most common childhood motor disability, cerebral palsy refers to a number of separate lifelong conditions that affect an individual’s movement, posture, balance, and coordination. Fortunately, emerging cutting-edge treatments are being developed to help people with cerebral palsy live more independent, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
Stem cell therapy
Although still in its early days of research, stem cell therapy is a promising treatment for people with cerebral palsy, although further research is required before it becomes available as a safe, standard treatment. Stem cells are primitive cells in the body that can grow into different types of cells and form different tissues. During a stem cell transplant, stem cells are injected into the patient either intravenously through a vein or intrathecally into the spinal canal with a lumbar puncture. The intended goal is for the stem cells to turn into nerve cells able to connect with other cells throughout the body and, crucially, then send messages to the muscles responsible for movement. In most cases, physical therapy is necessary after stem cell therapy to help ensure an optimal outcome. Moreover, research is also being currently done into medication that may be able to boost the body’s own production of stem cells. Such medication would mean the child’s damaged tissues could be repaired with their own stem cells. At the moment, clinical trials are still ongoing to determine whether this medication is safe for all patients.
Brain-computer interface (BCI)
BCI is a revolutionary device that can analyze a person’s brain signals and translate them into individual neurological commands. In turn, these commands can be used to control things like a functional stimulation device, robotic limbs, or a computer cursor. BCI can be either invasive, semi-invasive, or non-invasive depending on the type of technology used. Since BCI essentially controls electronic or robotic devices with brain signals, it has great potential to help people with severe neurological conditions like cerebral palsy. Symptoms of cerebral palsy don’t usually appear straight after birth, but usually within the first two or three years of the child’s life. Signs of CP may include delays in reaching developmental milestones (such as, not sitting by seven months or not walking by eighteen months), weak legs and/or arms, stiff or floppy limbs, or uncontrolled, random movements. Symptoms can differ from person to person and be mild or severe depending on the extent of the disability. With the use of BCI, children with cerebral palsy can begin rehabilitation and regain the ability to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in their day-to-day lives. BCI does, however, require ample hardware for it to successfully pick up and send brain signals to the output devices (this includes hardware for signal acquisition, feature extraction, and feature translation).
Numerous technological innovations are being developed to help people with cerebral palsy enjoy improved mobility and greater independence. For example, eye gaze control technology can help both children and adults control a computer, laptop, or speech-generating device using just their eyes. The eye gaze camera works by monitoring the individual’s eye movements, which in turn directs the mouse cursor on the computer screen. To select an item on the screen, the user simply has to either blink or stare for a prolonged period of time. Eye gaze technology has a range of valuable uses, including enabling communication (both written and verbal), internet access, and controlling the television remotely.
Alternately, researchers at the University of Oklahoma have created a robotic exoskeleton: a wearable device designed to aid the development of babies between two to eight months old with signs of cerebral palsy. The exoskeleton uses an EEG cap and mounted cameras to collect and analyze the data created when the baby tries to crawl and provides robotic assistance whenever the baby needs it. So, for example, when the baby shifts his or her weight, the exoskeleton detects this and moves a support platform in the same direction. In turn, this helps the baby successfully move in the direction he or she wants to go. As such, this robotic exoskeleton, although still in development, shows great potential in helping babies develop their motor and cognitive skills. In a preliminary 12-week trial, infants at risk for cerebral palsy who practiced crawling with the robotic exoskeleton were able to move around the room nearly one month before infants without the exoskeleton could.
Although there’s currently no cure for cerebral palsy, emerging treatments are promising to drastically transform the lives of people with this condition for the better. In particular, stem cell therapy, BCI, and innovative technology like eye gaze control and robotic exoskeletons help people with cerebral palsy live more independent and comfortable lives.