A unique treadmill is pushing people at a Baltimore research hospital into clumsy versions of Michael Jackson's moonwalk. Its makers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute hope to train stroke survivors and others with brain injuries to walk normally again.
The custom-built treadmill hides a split belt - one side can move one foot backward while the other moves forward, and at different speeds. While doing so, the brain has to automatically adjust the mode of walking to prevent falling.
Scientists at the Kennedy Krieger Institute say they are tapping into an unconscious adjustment, using a brief workout to jolt patients who usually limp and lurch, back into a normal stride- one they can retain for a few minutes after the treadmill stops.
Accordingly, separate nerve networks control how each leg moves and these networks can be retrained to change someone's innate walking patterns.
Yet the challenge to make better walking permanent remains.
This year, lead researcher Dr Amy Bastian will begin a study putting at least 40 stroke survivors through longer sessions with the wacky treadmill, to see if practice helps the improvement stick.
Kennedy Krieger hopes to eventually begin a similar study with children recovering from major brain surgery.
These findings offer a glimpse into the newest frontier in rehabilitation research: How to spur brain and spinal cord circuitry to rewire itself for normal leg control after a stroke or other brain injury.
Says Bastian:"The amazing thing about walking control is when you try to consciously override things, it doesn't work so well. "The belts start moving and if you think about it, you start to screw it up. If you just let your system take over, it's these lower, less conscious control networks that can do this, no sweat," she explains.