New Research Regarding A Baby’s First Steps May Be Instrumental In Rehabilitating Spinal Injury Victims

Babies First Steps Research Study

A team of researchers from VU University in Amsterdam aim to apply the findings from their most recent study to help children with cerebral palsy, and even improve the rehabilitation of adults suffering spinal cord injury, by analyzing the brain patterns involved as babies take their first steps.

The group’s work, led by Dr. Nadia Dominici, VU University’s Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences, was featured at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) Annual Meeting in Brighton, United Kingdom, which was held July 4-7, 2016.

“We look at the emergence of walking behaviors in both human babies and infant animals, as they develop.” explains Dr. Dominici.

Babies have an innate sense of what to do to start walking, long before they stand up. If held over the floor, an infant will often emulate the act of walking – a clear indicator that walking is instinctive – putting one foot in front of the other.

Dr. Dominici and colleagues contend this “primitive stepping reflex” is the foundational basis on which babies go on to build their independent walking movement. The researchers were able to identify the “walking” or “locomotion primitives” muscle groups that must work in symbiosis in order for a baby to walk.

“We found that human babies are born with just two walking primitives,” Dr. Dominici explains, “the first directs the legs to bend and extend, the second commands the baby’s legs to alternate – left, right, left, right – in order to move forward.”

The moment certain brain circuits mature, the baby becomes a toddler.

“To walk independently,” she adds, “babies learn two more primitives, which we believe handle balance control, step timing, and weight shifting.”

Additionally, the team found that these locomotive primitives were remarkably alike even compared to different animal species, despite all other differences in body structure and evolution.

Dr. Dominici says, “locomotion in several animal species could start from common primitives, maybe even stemming from a common ancestral neural network.”

Researchers have already shown it is possible to use neural primitives to improve walking in injured rats, which explains why Dominici and her team believe their findings could improve the mobility of patients suffering with walking disabilities.

“We are showing that humans and other terrestrial animals learn how to walk in surprisingly similar ways.” added Dr. Nadia Dominici.

Cerebral palsy is a disorder affecting the movement, muscle tone, and posture in children – is caused by damage to the developing brain. Many children with cerebral palsy have a reduced range of motion, and as a result of, are not be able to walk properly.

The team hopes that they can apply their approach to children with cerebral palsy and adults with spinal cord injuries.

Joseph Bryant
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