A high-tech robotic arm that can be used at home by children with dyspraxia to improve hand coordination is being developed by researchers at the University of Leeds.
The work, which is showing very promising early results, has been funded by children's health charity Action Medical Research.
At least five per cent of children - roughly one child in every classroom - are affected by dyspraxia, also known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD). The majority of these youngsters will not receive the level of help they need due to high demand on limited occupational therapy resources - some may be seen just once a year.
Dyspraxia is a general deficit in motor skills, affecting coordination and movement. Its root cause remains unknown. Children with dyspraxia struggle with skilful, controlled actions, making simple daily tasks such as buttoning their coat or using cutlery, much more difficult. Problems with handwriting mean they struggle with school work, which can mean they get left behind or lose self-confidence. This can damage a child's self-esteem and can lead to depression and other health problems in the long term.
The pioneering robotic system has been successfully developed and tested by a team from the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds, working in collaboration with colleagues at the universities of Aberdeen in Scotland and Indiana in the United States. It allows children with coordination problems to practice therapist-prescribed exercises at home using an interactive desk-top system, which can also monitor how they move, measuring things like smoothness and speed of movement. Early tests suggest that children's writing skills improve after they've used the robot arm.
The fun exercises involve children using a pen, guided by the robotic arm, to push objects along a 3D track shown on a computer screen. The system applies guiding forces to the child's arm and hand to help them to control their movements and discourage inappropriate ones. The strength of the forces can be altered to shape appropriate movements and vary the difficulty of the exercises.
Professor Mark Mon-Williams, who is leading the research team, said: "We know that children with dyspraxia can overcome many of their difficulties if they are given intensive therapy. The harsh reality is that there are not enough qualified therapists available to give every child the regular one-to-one help they require.
"This project offers the first objective evidence that following therapist prescribed home-exercises implemented using assistive technology has the potential to help improve children's movement and writing skills, opening a window of hope for the many children who experience the profound problems associated with dyspraxia.
"The children we've worked with have really driven a lot of the development, so we now have a system we know they like and will want to use. For example, we originally started with a hospital-based system but our user group of children said they'd much prefer to be able to use it at home after school so we adapted it to a more suitable lap-top-based system that fits inside a small holdall. They also got involved in the design of the games and exercises."
Dr Yolande Harley, Deputy Director of Research at Action Medical Research, said: "Action Medical Research is one of very few UK charities researching practical ways to help children with developmental conditions such as dyspraxia to reach their full potential. We are very proud to have supported such a cutting-edge piece of work, which could make a big difference to supporting children with dyspraxia and widen access to intensive therapy.
"Providing therapy for children's coordination problems will bring all-round benefits, helping them to do better at school, make friends and enjoy physical activities and hobbies."
Further tests are now planned to investigate how long the robot should be used to get the best outcome and which children could benefit the most. The research team anticipates that the basic system, or a form of it, could be widely available by 2012.
In the meantime this research suggests that parents themselves can also help their children to improve their handwriting at home by helping them practice and providing the hand with gentle guidance.
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The charity Action Medical Research has provided a grant of £67,820 to support this work. Action Medical Research is a leading, national medical research charity. For nearly 60 years we have been instrumental in significant medical breakthroughs including the development of the UK polio vaccine and ultrasound scanning in pregnancy. Our research helps babies and children affected by disease and disability. We are currently funding research into many serious diseases and conditions, including meningitis, pneumonia and cerebral palsy. Our special appeal, Touching Tiny Lives, funds vital research to reduce premature birth and improve care for sick babies. www.action.org.uk
The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. ./
With more than 6,000 students, 1,500 staff and annual research income topping £35m, the Faculty of Medicine and Health at Leeds is bigger than many entire universities. Leeds has one of the largest medical and bioscience research bases in the UK, and is an acknowledged world leader in cancer, cardiovascular, psychiatric, genetic and musculo-skeletal research. Treatments developed in Leeds are transforming the lives of people around the world living with conditions such as HIV, TB, diabetes and malaria.