Where once a diagnosis of Down syndrome or cerebral palsy would sentence infants to a life of lagging behind their peers in mental and physical development, University researchers are showing that a simple exercise machine could help these children keep up with their age group.

Sarah Royce
A mother trains with her child on a treadmill designed to stimulate movement. (Courtesy of Prof. Dale Ulrich)

Professors and students in the Division of Kinesiology are conducting studies to help stimulate movement in infants born with Down syndrome and those that are at risk for cerebral palsy. Their treatment of choice isn’t a drug or an operation, but a simple machine feared by all middle-aged couch potatoes: the treadmill.

Twelve years ago, University researchers Dale and Beverly Ulrich started researching how to get Down syndrome infants to walk at earlier developmental stages. After years of trials and research, they’ve found a way to teach Down syndrome babies to walk almost as early as their peers using tiny treadmills built for infants.

“Long before these children can walk, we try to train them by holding and supporting them on a treadmill,” said Dale Ulrich, who heads the Center for Motor Behavior and Pediatric Disabilities under the Division of Kinesiology. His wife, Beverly, is dean of kinesiology.

The treadmill pulls their legs back, which stretches the leg muscles and springs them forward. These repetitions train the babies’ brains to stimulate movement.

Their success with Down syndrome babies has turned their research toward a new goal: applying the same methods to infants at risk for cerebral palsy.

The cerebral palsy infants present a special challenge, Dale Ulrich said, because their high muscle tone causes their legs to move spastically. Down syndrome children have more relaxed leg muscles.

A year and a half ago, the Division of Kinesiology won a five-year grant from the federal Department of Education to continue this research. Since then, researcher Rosa Angulo-Barroso, who works with the Ulrichs, has been working on finding ways to help children at risk for cerebral palsy.

Right now, researchers are trying to collect data by working with at-risk infants between the ages of six months and one year. The research team separates these infants into one of two groups for a study that will follow them until six months after they start walking. The control group receives no intervention, and the experimental group has mini-treadmills installed in their homes.

For the experiment, each child’s parents support him on the treadmill for an eight-minute workout five days a week. The research team then makes visits to the homes once a month to assess the infant’s motor development. Six months after the babies can walk on their own, their parents bring them to the research lab for a final evaluation.

“We use assessment batteries, which are typically used in the clinics by pediatricians,” Angulo-Barroso said. “We assess in general, not only their progress in walking, but also in their motor and cognitive development.”

Researchers are looking not only at the infants’ progress in walking, but also their other motor skills and even mental ability. Dale Ulrich explained that being able to walk early allows infants to explore their environment sooner, which helps their cognitive development.

Graduate students perform the bulk of the assessment. Graduate student Meghann Lloyd is one of the research assistants who has been working closely with the Ulrichs and Angulo-Barroso for the past few years. She describes the work as a great learning experience.

“We get to build a really interesting relationship with the families and kids,” Lloyd said. “That is definitely one of the perks for working in the family’s home in a longitudinal study. We become a bit of a resource for some of the parents, because they often have questions for us.”

Many undergraduate students have also lent a hand in the research. Lloyd estimates that 10 to 12 undergrads are working on the project.

“(Undergrads) are there to learn about research and help us by assisting, but we make an effort to make sure that they all get a chance to go out to the homes to see the families and kids,” Lloyd said. “Also, when the infants come into the CCRB research center, they get to see them and their progress. They are getting more than just numbers on a page or pictures on a file.”

Angulo-Barroso estimates that the final results of the research on cerebral palsy will become public around 2008 or 2009.

“We have seen tremendous amounts of success in our Down syndrome infants,” Dale Ulrich said. “Our infants at risk for cerebral palsy are taking a lot of steps, but it is too early to tell.”

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