New robotic technology is helping children recover from brain injuries

New technology, known as 'Diego the robot', helps children to re-learn movement after a brain injury through the use of overhead cables, sensors and video games. 

Grace using the robotic technology Grace McShane, seven, who was left partially paralysed following a massive bleed on her brain, has become one of the first patients to benefit from the technology. She is now beginning to move independently thanks to 'Diego', a pioneering robot now operating at Newcastle's Great North Children's Hospital. Diego uses video games to encourage her to re-learn to move the left side of her body, as she recovers from her injuries. For the first time in months, she is now able to walk independently and manage stairs with help. While she still does not have full function of her left hand, Grace can now use her left shoulder and arm. The robot was brought from Austria to the North East hospital thanks to £47,500 funding from the Newcastle Healthcare Charity. The robot works by providing support for children's arms with overhead cables from a portable stand, while using sophisticated sensors to track the position of the child's elbow and wrist. This information is then used to create virtual reality games on the computer screen where the child can move his or her 'arms' more effectively than they can in reality. With this partial assistance, the patient can begin to practise and re-learn movements, helping them to recover more quickly. . In August 2015, Grace returned from a family holiday in Portugal with mother, Sarah Fairbairn, father, Derek McShane, and sister, Cathy, complaining of a headache. Mrs Fairbairn put her to bed, thinking she was tired from the journey. However, in the morning, she was unable to rouse Grace and called an ambulance. Grace was taken to A&E at the Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital, where she was reported as drowsy and not using her left side. Medics were forced to incubate her and put her on a ventilation machine before she was transferred to the paediatric intensive care unit at the RVI's Great North Children's Hospital. A CT scan revealed a large bleed on the brain. Grace was then moved to the hospital's paediatric neurological ward. The bleed had caused left-sided facial palsy, where the side of the face becomes paralysed, and weakness in her left arm and leg.  Since then, the Diego rehabilitation robot has become an integral part of her therapy. Speaking at the robot's first public demonstration, Dr Rob Forsyth, consultant and senior lecturer in Child Neurology at the GNCH, said "every year in the UK some 1,300 children are diagnosed with cerebral palsy. A similar number of older children also acquire significant brain injury - from strokes, road traffic accidents or meningitis for example. This second group with so-called acquired brain injury (ABI) is growing. Grace using the robotic technology "We are getting better at treating severe acute illnesses like meningitis and some children who in the past would have died are now surviving, but unfortunately with an injury to their brain. "Robotic devices are an increasingly accepted part of 21st century rehabilitation in an adult context, yet there are very few paediatric centres using them anywhere in Europe. Newcastle's research into the causes, treatment and rehabilitation of brain injury in children has an international reputation and this new robotic therapy system will further help cement Newcastle's reputation in this area." Deb Gardner, an advanced paediatric occupational therapist with specialism in neurology and ABI in children, added "during the trial stage, we were immediately impressed by the ability of Diego to engage and motivate children. The system is extremely portable and flexible and we can quickly adjust the degree of support and task difficulty as a child improves."
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