Most exoskeletons, existing and in development, are for adults. Growing children obviously change their size, particularly in the length of their limbs, and anyone who has raised children to their teenage years knows that growth spurts can cause rapid change. A Spanish research group has recently announced an exoskeleton design that accommodates growth.
The Superior Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), working in partnership with technology company Marsi Bionics, is developing an exoskeleton specifically for children with Type 2 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a degenerative disease that affects 1 in 10,000 children in Spain. The Muscular Dystrophy Association describes SMA as “a genetic disease affecting the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement.” There are numerous varieties of SMA that are dependent on genetic factors, which can result in a wide range of symptoms.
There are, however, three types of SMA defined by when the condition is diagnosed. Type 1, diagnosed with a couple of months of birth, is the most severe and survival past 18 months is rare. Type 2 is diagnosed between 7 and 18 months; this is the group for with the CSIC exoskeleton is being developed, because otherwise they likely will never walk, with resultant muscle development, respiratory, and other health problems. Patients with Type 2 can reach adulthood, though their lifespan is often affected by other health conditions that are secondary to the SMA. With Type 3 SMA, diagnosed after 18 months to adulthood, live expectancy is about average for all adults, although quality of life is generally compromised and they will typically lose the ability to walk by adolescence.
The CSIC exoskeleton is designed with telescoping components so it will fit children from 3 to 14 years. There are five engines in each leg. SMA is a degenerative, genetic disease, which means even with exercise and therapy the muscles will atrophy. The bionics element of the exoskeleton senses changes in the child’s own muscles and adjusts the amount of assistance provided. The only reason that 3 years is the minimum age is that it is difficult to train younger children to use and control the exoskeleton.
With the CSIC exoskeleton some children are able to walk for the first time. Using it can be beneficial to quality and enjoyment of life as well as therapeutic in helping to counter the muscle degeneration.