Robot helps kids with cerebral palsy build muscle control

J.B. McWhorter, 12, doesn't seem to mind hanging out with a slightly bossy, round-eyed robot.

The Dacula, Georgia middle schooler has cerebral palsy, or CP, a movement disorder that makes it hard for him to control his arms and legs. But, if McWhorter doesn't practice moving his muscles they will stiffen.

"So, we just need as much therapy as we can," says J.B's mother, Lacey McWhorter.

That's where the robot comes in.

He's been programmed to be kind of movement coach, to talk JB through his physical therapy sessions at home.

Georgia State University Associate Professor Yu-Ping Chen, who is expert in physical therapy, says movement is really important for people with CP.

To develop better muscle control and stronger motor skills, Chen says, children with CP need to repeat the same movements hundreds if not thousands of times.

It's like working out, she says.

Adults know if they want to get stronger and better at a sport, they have to put in the time and practice.

"But for kids, it's boring," says Chen. "It's really boring, to repeatedly to do the exercises again and again and again. Nobody wants to do it."

The robot serves as a coach and companion to J.B.

"So that's what you need, to have something to encourage him, to motivate him to do it," says Chen.

The robot has been programmed by Ayanna Howard, a professor of robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, to help children like JB improve their motor skills and muscle control.

"He's kinds of serves as a playmate, plays with the child," says Ping. "So, (he) gives the child some kind of encouragement. Gives him some direction, how to move faster, better. So a robot tells him, 'J.B., good job!' He feels happy, he feels excited, he feels motivated."

J.B.'s mother says it's made his at-home physical therapy exercises easier.

"I like it because I don't have to tell him what to do," she says. "It's kind of like a game for him."

The robot is a bit work in progress, with kinks that need working out.

But the GSU/GA Tech researchers hope to give thousands of kids like J.B. a better, more fun way to build their motor skills and muscle-control.

"I think nowadays, the kids (like J.B) are high-tech," says Ping. "He knows the technology. So if you have a robot instead of a therapist, or instead of mom or daddy, talking to him instead of saying, 'JB, you have to do it!' There's no way."

But, J-B seems to like his robot/coach/cheerleader just fine.