Members of the Biological Robotics at Tulsa (BRAT) Research Group in The University of Tulsa’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, are studying the muscle condition hypotonia to improve the quality of life for children who suffer from it. Graduate student Bradford Kerst and Joshua Schultz, an associate professor and BRAT group director, partnered with teachers and therapists at Little Light House in Tulsa to learn how hypotonia reduces muscle tone and strength. Their research is sponsored by a grant from the Disability and Rehabilitation Engineering program at the National Science Foundation and is TU’s first nationally funded project in rehabilitation robotics.
Kerst said he and Schultz are beginning the final phase of data collection through a device that supports a child’s head and is worn by Little Light House students who experience weak neck muscles as a result of hypotonia. Known commercially as a Headpod, the device holds a child’s head in a neutral posture. Current therapy for hypotonia involves supporting a child’s head from a lightweight suspension frame using a cable and head strap, but TU researchers plan to build a robotic prototype that relinquishes a portion of the support when a child does not need it. This will allow therapists to program a regimen that trains neck muscles in the hope that strength development will enable children to hold up their heads on their own.
“We will use a motion capture system and the initial data gathered to pick out the right motor size for the device, and we’re working with therapists to determine what safety features we need,” Kerst explained.
Little Light House students who have worn the data-capturing Headpod so far have been able to access switches near their head to activate a switch-adapted power wheels truck. Lynda Crouch, assistive technology coordinator at Little Light House, also explained that, in some instances, the Headpod device has been attached to a stander. “Because of the support of the Headpod, we can see secondary results of increased visual attention and social interaction with other students. Their heads are supported in an upright position to see their world. Without the Headpod, they keep their head down or we have to position them reclined in wheelchairs.”
Robotics to the rescue
With mentoring from Schultz, Kerst and an undergraduate researcher who will be added to the TU team this fall will develop biomechanical computer models to program the device’s robotic support system. The project is Kerst’s first exposure to robotics research and has piqued his interest in a career that uses rehabilitation robotics to improve head control.
“Our goal is to understand hypotonia and learn new information about the disorder that we can use in the future to help people,” he said. “It’s been overlooked in a lot of research, so it’s something Professor Schultz and the therapists discussed and saw a need to study.”
As researchers complete the final phase of data collection, Little Light House therapists anticipate a TU design that will improve head positioning for students and allow them to participate fully in daily classroom activities.
“We already knew our students were special, but this research has shown us how unique and incredible they are,” said Crouch. “We’re learning how important it is to capture data that reflects what we as therapists and teachers observe in daily interactions with the children.”
TU faculty and students have a long history of working closely with the Little Light House. Schultz and Kerst meet bi-weekly with the school’s staff to incorporate problem-solving, strategic planning and engineering applications into the plan for a therapeutic device.
Once data collection is complete, Schultz and his team of student researchers will build a prototype that they plan to begin testing in 2020.