The robotic device measures position sense, something that is often damaged in children who have had stokes, and is being pioneered by researchers in Calgary.

About 1000 children in Alberta are currently living with the effects of having had a stroke while in the womb. Cerebral palsy is the most common side effect of perinatal stroke. Children with cerebral palsy have difficulties with motor skills.

“Someone whose position sense has been affected might have difficulty knowing where their hand or arm is in space, adding to their difficulty in using their affected, weaker limb,” says Dr. Adam Kirton, an Alberta Health Services specialist in perinatal stroke and the senior researcher on the study. “We can try to make a hand stronger but, if your brain doesn’t know where the hand is, this may not translate into meaningful function in daily life.”

Researchers in Calgary are doing groundbreaking work with these children using the KINARM (Kinesiological Instrument for Normal and Altered Reaching Movements) robotic device at the Foothills Medical Centre. Children sat in the KINARM with their arms supported by the exoskeleton, which measured movement as they played video games and completed various tasks. The researchers used MRI scans to understand the differences in major sensory and motor tracks in the brain, and how this might relate to function.

“Without technology like this, it’s next to impossible to objectively measure position sense,” said Andrea Kuczynski, a PhD candidate with the University of Calgary. “In the future, the KINARM could be used as a tool for rehabilitation. Once we have an understanding of how an individual’s position sense has been affected, we can begin to focus and personalize rehabilitation.”

Max Challoner, a 12-year-old participant in the Calgary study, had a perinatal stroke that left him with mild physical impairments on his right side.

“He spent some time in an intensive care unit shortly after he was born because he was having seizures,” his mom Wendy Saunders said. “Getting involved in the research has helped us learn more about some of the issues surrounding perinatal stroke,” Wendy said. “The possibility that this could one day lead to tailored treatments for Max and other kids is quite exciting.”

The study has been published in a recent edition of Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.