The biological robotics research group in The University of Tulsa’s Department of Mechanical Engineering has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate interventions that may improve the quality of life for children with hypotonia through rehabilitation robotics. The condition causes low strength and tone in neck muscles and can prevent or delay development of functional, upright and independent control of the head. TU students and faculty are partnering on the project with Tulsa’s Little Light House, a Christian developmental center for children with special needs.
According to Joshua Schultz, principal investigator and assistant professor of mechanical engineering, current therapeutic practice is to support the child’s head from a lightweight, dynamic suspension frame using a cable and head strap. The suspension provides only one passive level of support and does little to help children learn how to control their heads using their own muscle power.
“Developing upright and stable head control is critical to motor and cognitive development in children, and this project provides innovative opportunities to create a new environment to assist children to do so,” said Julie Wilson, PT, Little Light House director of therapy services.
Professor Schultz added, “We want to help children support their own heads by using a robotic device to give them support when they need it and relinquish it when they don’t.”
The TU research team, including an undergraduate researcher and a doctoral student, will collaborate directly with physical and occupational therapists at Little Light House to study muscles of the human neck and incorporate computer modeling. The three-year grant from the NSF Disability and Rehabilitation Engineering program is TU’s first nationally funded research project in rehabilitation robotics. “We are very excited about the potential of this new robotic system for encouraging development of independent head control, which will open up opportunities for a child to actively improve their visual motor control and engagement in the classroom,” said Occupational Therapist Anne McCoy.
“Rehabilitation robotics is coming out of its infancy and finding better ways to help people with disabilities live fuller, more active lives in broader participation with the rest of society,” Schultz said.
Research will include three phases of development: 1) taking measurements on how the existing device supports the head and correlates to daily activities; 2) understanding the biomechanics of the human head and neck muscles and using computer models to predict neck muscle forces; and 3) developing a robotic device that delivers the right amount of support to the head in each pose based on the needs of the individual child’s therapy regimen.
Mechanical engineering senior and current Make A Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) president Paige Hibbard has been hired as the project’s undergraduate research assistant.
“I have a lot of experience working with kids at the Little Light House,” she said. “That’s one of the things that drew me to this project. I hope to learn a lot more about robotics and if this is something I want to go into in the future.”
After the final phase of development, the device will be evaluated in a clinical setting to determine its effectiveness in strengthening the musculature of the neck to allow more independent head control over time.