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Robotic arm reaches out to kids with motor deficit

High-tech system lets children with coordination problems practice therapist-prescribed exercises using an interactive desktop system.

Updated at 10 a.m. PDT October 20 with specific model of robotic arm used.

A robotic arm is lending a hand to children with dyspraxia, a motor-skills deficit also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder or Clumsy Child Syndrome.

The system, under development at the U.K.'s University of Leeds, combines a commercially available Phantom Omni haptic device with software that lets children with coordination problems practice therapist-prescribed exercises at home using an interactive desktop setup. It can also monitor how the kids move, measuring factors like smoothness, speed of movement, and joint configurations.

robotic arm
Children with dyspraxia are currently working with the robotic arm weekly to help them develop better coordination. University of Leeds

Guided by the robotic arm, for example, kids use a pen to push objects along a 3D track displayed on a computer screen. The system applies guiding forces to the child's arm and hand to help control movements. The strength of the forces can be altered to shape movements and vary the difficulty of the exercises.

"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 laptop-based system that fits inside a small holdall," said Mark Mon-Williams, a University of Leeds professor of cognitive psychology who is leading the research, in a statement. "They also got involved in the design of the games and exercises."

The Leeds team is collaborating with researchers at universities in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Indiana, with funding from U.K. children's health charity Action Medical Research.

Dyspraxia is a neurologically based disorder that affects the ability to see a movement goal through to completion. Children with dyspraxia struggle with skillful, controlled actions, making simple, daily tasks such as buttoning their coats more difficult. Handwriting often suffers, which can lead to homework struggles and ultimately a loss of self-confidence.

The World Health Organization estimates that dyspraxia affects 6 percent of all children to varying degrees, with some estimates suggesting the number may be as high as 20 percent. "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe recently revealed that he suffers from a mild case of dyspraxia and sometimes has trouble tying his shoes or writing a thank you note.

The research team says early trials of the robotic arm system look promising, with tests suggesting children's writing skills improve after they've used the contraption. Scientists hope that the arm could eventually be applied to a wide range of movement problems.

Last week, the BBC News profiled Tom Powis, an 11-year-old with dyspraxia whose handwriting problems have often landed him in a group of students with lower abilities than his own. Powis is among those trying the high-tech arm, and so far he is enjoying the system--as are his two brothers, who don't have movement troubles.

"The robot is really good fun," Tom's mother Gillian told the BBC. "Children need the intense input and using the robot with visual feedback makes it fun to learn and easier to learn. The potential for this is huge."