January 1, 2009 Kinesiologsts developed a tiny treadmill to help infants with Down Syndrome learn to balance themselves earlier. Typically, these children learn how to walk at 24 to 28 months, later than the 12 months for those without Down syndrome. The treadmill exercise, used about 8 minutes a day, helps to reinforce the underlying pattern of coordination in the legs. This repetition helps build core muscles and support the drive to stand up. After the babies take eight to 10 steps without help, they are outfitted with light reflecting markers. The information from these markers is recorded on cameras, revealing gait, speed and width of their steps. Researchers show walking is occurring six months sooner with the treadmill.
Down syndrome affects one in every 800 babies. It's a genetic condition that causes delays in intellectual and physical development. Researchers have now developed a treadmill for Down syndrome babies to help them walk earlier than ever before.
Six-year-old Evan keeps his big brothers busy. Nothing can slow him down, and that's just the way his mom likes it. "He loves to run and play with his brothers," mother Jeanette Kurnik said.
Evan has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused when a fetus has 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. Typical kids learn to walk at 12 months. Babies with Down syndrome learn at 24 to 28 months.
Kinesiologist Dale Ulrich, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., studies human movement and led the team who developed a tiny treadmill specifically for children with Down syndrome.
"The idea is we want to support this underlying pattern of coordination in their legs, this alternating stepping," Dr. Ulrich said.
The treadmill training helps babies with Down learn to balance earlier. Signe Newcomb helps her daughter Lauren use the treadmill at home for eight minutes every day. "She likes to stand more and is building her core muscle strength," Newcomb said.
Once the babies take eight to ten steps by themselves, they are evaluated at the Gait Laboratory where information from light-reflecting markers attached to the child is recorded on cameras.
"Basically, we know how long their step is, how wide they walk and how fast they walk," Rosa Angulobarroso, a research scientist at the University of Michigan, said.
Studies show the babies learn to walk six months earlier than kids without treadmill training, and the quality of their walking is much better. It doesn't sound like much, but it can mean a world of difference.
"Once locomotion occurs, it really advances cognitive development, social skill development and language, so the sooner you get them walking, [the sooner] they can explore their environment," Dr. Ulrich said.
Babies can start their treadmill training as early as eight to 10 months of age.
WHAT CAUSES ABNORMAL NUMBERS OF CHROMOSOMES? Chromosomes are tiny structures in the cells of the human body that contain roughly 30,000 to 35,000 gene pairs. The genes determine traits like eye and hair color, and also how our bodies grow and develop in the womb. Each person normally has 23 pairs of chromosomes (46 in all), inheriting one chromosome per pair from each parent. Unlike other cells in the body, sperm and egg cells only have 23 unpaired chromosomes; when a sperm and egg unite, they form a fertilized egg with all 46 chromosomes. But sometimes, in the process of cell division, an error occurs, so that a sperm or egg cell has too many or too few chromosomes. Scientists don't know what exactly causes this, but the resulting embryo has a chromosomal abnormality. About 70 percent of such pregnancies result in a miscarriage, but if carried to term, the baby could have any number of disorders because of the abnormality.
ABOUT DOWN SYNDROME AND CHROMOSOMAL ABNORMALITIES: Down syndrome is the most common of these disorders, affecting about 1 in every 800 to 1,000 live-born babies. Babies with Down syndrome have three copies of a particular chromosome instead of two. Children with Down syndrome can suffer from intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as heart defects. Babies born with extra copies of other chromosomes can be severely retarded with many physical birth defects; most die before their first birthday. Other chromosomal abnormalities include small missing sections of the chromosome; a missing single gene; a section of one chromosome attaching itself to another; and a chromosome that is somehow snipped out and reinserted upside down in the sequence.
HOW WE WALK: Walking is different from a running gait because only one foot at a time lifts off the ground. During forward motion, the leg that leaves the ground swings forward from the hip, like a pendulum. Then the leg strikes the ground with the heel and rolls through the toe in a motion similar to an inverted pendulum. The motion of the two legs is coordinated so that one foot or the other is always in contact with the ground -- a so-called 'double pendulum' strategy. The process of walking recovers about 60 percent of the energy expended thanks to the pendulum dynamics and the ground reaction force. The legs act as long levers that transfer ground reaction force to the spine.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.