Integrating robotic technology into cerebral palsy research
By Jacob Morgan, MSc
What do rehabilitative medicine, aerospace engineering and the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) have in common? The answer is GaitTronics, an Ontario-based company that is testament to the ingenuity that can come of unlikely partnerships.
GaitTronics develops robotic technology to help rehab patients get back on their feet and on the move. Movement is central to rehabilitation medicine, but can present a conundrum: Most therapy works by getting patients to move and to exercise, yet movement can be a major source of strain.
Enter GaitTronics’ flagship product: GaitEnable, a robot that allows patients with mobility problems to walk under their own power and at their own pace, safely and easily. The robot does not rely on the caregiver, which sets it apart from other mobility devices. Instead, it is controlled and guided by the patient, encouraging independence.
GaitEnable follows in a patient’s footsteps, monitoring his or her stability and anticipating and preventing falls. An intuitive user interface places the caregiver at arm’s length of the patient to provide reassurance, encouragement and direct support if necessary.
Light and agile
The impetus for GaitTronics spun out of Carleton University’s Mechanical Aerospace Engineering program as the topic of Dr. Ali Morbi’s PhD thesis. “In general, the motivation of our project was to use robotics to make heavy, cumbersome machinery feel light and agile,” says Dr. Morbi. “We saw that patients and caregivers were being weighed down by assistive devices, and we saw an opportunity to make therapy empowering.”
In 2012, the OBI awarded Dr. Morbi an Entrepreneurial Fellowship, with co-funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, to develop his nascent start-up company. “The OBI Entrepreneur Fellowship was critical to the development of GaitTronics and GaitEnable,” says Dr. Morbi. “They provided us with the resources, mentorship and contacts needed to translate research into helping people.”
Through the OBI network, GaitTronics was introduced to the Childhood Cerebral Palsy Integrated Neuroscience Discovery Network (CP-NET), an Ontario-wide network of researchers, clinicians, patients and advocates that is coordinated by the OBI. Members of the network are united by their commitment to improving the lives of children and youth living with cerebral palsy, and their families.
The OBI facilitated collaboration between CP-NET and GaitTronics to develop a new robot tailored to the needs of people living with cerebral palsy. “It’s a collaborative approach,” says Lauren Switzer, a CP-NET project manager who works out of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. “We’re beginning to adapt the existing technology…to build on GaitTronics’ foundation and address the very specific needs of young people with cerebral palsy.”
Switzer says the partnership is mutually beneficial, providing opportunities for research validation while helping people with cerebral palsy. “We have expert technical knowledge being integrated with the real-life experiences of patients and their families,” she says. It is a progressive model, and an integrative system based on thinking outside of the box.
Malleable and self-directed
GaitEnable is unique among mobility devices for its inherent customizability. “It’s not one size fits all,” says Dr. Morbi. “The robot is fully reprogrammable to be finely calibrated to the particular needs of each patient.” Such malleability in function makes it a versatile tool, helpful to a wide variety of patients with mobility disorders and specific needs.
The robot’s programmability means that it can be fully adjusted to suit patients in different therapy programs. For example, some individuals with cerebral palsy rely on a wheelchair for mobility, as a walker does not provide enough trunk support for safe mobility. GaitEnable can be customized to promote safe foot placement and provide trunk support for an upright posture and weight-bearing strength, optimizing the patient’s gait. The use of GaitEnable in this way encourages patients to exercise and strengthen their affected body parts. Even better, the robot is directed by the patient, who is therefore in control of his or her own movements and, in that way, can take greater charge of his or her life as a whole.
The sky is the limit
GaitEnable, and products like it, have the potential to change the way patients are supported—directly increasing patient safety, reducing the strain on caregivers and resources, and improving care. And by directly involving patients and their families in designing the framework for rehabilitative care, integrative programs of research and development are creating a health care system that engages and empowers patients.
According to Dr. Morbi, the plan is to launch GaitEnable in hospitals for adult patients within the next two years, and then get it out of the clinics and into communities and homes. “There’s so much potential in this sort of collaboration,” says Switzer. “The sky’s the limit.”
For more information on GaitEnable, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacob Morgan is an outreach intern at the OBI and has an MSc in neuroscience. He is interested in the brain, music, creativity and people.