Could clothing teach babies with brain injury how to move?



The seemingly random flailing of a newborn’s arms and legs is more important than it looks – it’s how babies begin to explore the physical world and their place in it. This motion-capture movie shows the normal kicking of a 5-month-old, but when a baby’s muscles are weakened by brain injury, this exploration is curtailed. It becomes a vicious cycle: the motor parts of the brain can’t develop properly, impairing mobility even further. Psychologist Eugene Goldfield, PhD, of the Center for Behavioral Science at Children’s Hospital Boston, with a team of engineers and scientists at the Wyss Institute, is in the early stages of a project that could help break this cycle for babies with cerebral palsy.

Goldfield calls it the “second skin” – smart clothing whose fabric, studded with tiny sensors, would pick up attempts at motion. Programmable “actuators,” also embedded in the fabric, would give the muscles a tiny boost — just enough to allow babies to execute exploratory movements and feel the results just like normal infants. This would “teach” their rapidly developing brains what the muscles need to do and how to wire themselves properly for motion.

“The infant brain, when injured, has a remarkable capability for restoration of function,” Goldfield says. “If we’re successful, we’ll be able to provide these children with the opportunity to reeducate their nervous system, giving them the experience of exploratory behavior that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Wyss Institute, where Goldfield is an associate faculty member, the team is using advanced micro-fabrication techniques, borrowed from the design of astronauts’ clothing, to produce sheets of material with embedded sensors. From these, they created a kind of stocking, which they are first using to study the leg movements of typically-developing infants.

The information picked up by the sensors — sampled in the movie above — is establishing the basis for normal flexion and extension of each leg. Goldfield and a team of scientists from Harvard, MIT, Boston University and Draper Laboratory will observe the babies several times to establish a baseline, then eventually study babies with brain injury and compare the data. The data will eventually be programmed into the second skin, with the aid of computer simulation, so the muscle actuators can give the right kinds of assists.

Goldfield wondered at first whether the idea of programmable clothing was too crazy for a developmental psychologist to pursue. In a separate post, he shares his serendipitous journey.