Boosting Mobility and Independence from Infant to Adult
By Guest Blogger Dr. Alison Cernich, Ph.D. Director, National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR)
Two young buddies, Siddharth Bhavani, 11, and Samuel Tucker, 10, both of Bowie, Md., checked out a robot exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Innovation Festival earlier this year. Playing on the floor with a small skateboard-like device designed to help disabled babies crawl, the boys summed up the value of medical rehabilitation research.
“I think this is good for babies,” said an earnest Samuel. Siddharth agreed: “If a baby can’t move a limb, how can they get around?”
Chief engineer and physical therapist Peter E. Pidcoe, MBA, from Virginia Commonwealth University, had those same thoughts when he designed the BabyBot, an assistive device developed with funding from NICHD’s National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR). The device is composed of a sophisticated web of wires and sensors tucked into a robotic, padded board. When a baby lies belly down on the board, sensors pick up signals, gestures, and any slight movement, offering a gentle robotic nudge of encouragement.
It’s a fairly simple concept with a complex, high-tech design.
“This gives babies with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome, or other disabilities, the chance to crawl, to move, to gain mobility,” said Pidcoe. His colleague Thobi Kolobe Ph.D., at the University of Oklahoma, is using the crawler in her clinic. Kolobe’s research has found that babies with disabilities can develop the ability to crawl as infants, but if they do not start to use movement early on, they may lose the cognitive ability.
The BabyBot device, known by researchers as the “Sip-See” or Self-Initiated Prone Progressive Crawler, took six years to engineer. It is designed specifically for use at home, with a mobile app for parents to help guide infants. “We are giving babies the ability to control their environment,” said Pidcoe.
Other NCMRR-funded projects also were featured at the festival. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, Ph.D., from the University of Houston, showcased his invention, a thought-controlledexoskeleton that helps paralyzed people walk and assists with recovery after a stroke. Cole Galloway, Ph.D., from the University of Delaware, shared his Go Baby Go toy car, specially modified to help kids with disabilities get around.
Inventions like these are fundamental to NCMRR’s work.
“Fostering independence and mobility is what we do,” said NCMRR Director Alison Cernich, Ph.D. “Our grantees are committed to helping people with disabilities, whether infants or adults, gain mobility and strength to improve their quality of life and participate more fully in society.”
Perhaps hoping her daughter would catch the science bug, Cernich brought her six-year-old daughter Corinne to the Smithsonian festival to meet some of the nation’s premier innovators. In the Spark Lab, a hands-on space for young, budding scientists, she designed her own wheelchair, but quickly realized it had a hard time on the stairs.
“She said it was too bad her invention worked only on ramps,” Cernich said. “I agreed. We have more innovating to do.”
About the Guest Blogger
Alison Cernich, Ph.D., is a Board Certified Neuropsychologist who is known for her previous work in traumatic brain injury (TBI) and computerized neuropsychological assessment. She previously served as the Deputy Director for the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE), working with the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense on matters relating to these conditions. She served on multiple interagency strategic planning committees and government oversight committees for major research initiatives in both Departments. She received her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU). She completed a pre-doctoral research fellowship in rehabilitation outcomes measurement at the Kessler Medical Rehabilitation Research & Education Corporation, funded by the National Institutes of Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) and a post-doctoral fellowship in cognitive neurosciences at the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Washington, DC. She was previously the Director of Neuropsychology and Director of the Polytrauma Support Clinical Team at the VA Maryland Health Care System (VAMHCS). She was an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Her research focus, supported by a Career Development Award and other support from VA’s Rehabilitation Research Development Service, was focused on the effects of aerobic exercise on cognition in multiple clinical populations (e.g., individuals diagnosed with stroke or Parkinson’s disease).