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Understanding baby's first steps could improve spinal injury rehab

A group of researchers from VU University, Amsterdam, Netherlands studying the brain patterns involved as babies take their first steps hope to apply their findings to helping children with cerebral palsy and improving the rehabilitation of adults following spinal cord injury. Dr. Nadia Dominici, who heads the group at VU University's Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences, explains what they do: "We look at the emergence of walking behaviors in both human babies and infant animals, as they develop." Even before they stand up, babies have an idea of what to do to start walking. If an infant is held over the floor, it will often attempt to put one foot in front of the other, clearly indicating an instinct for walking. All that is needed is time for the right brain circuits to mature, and one day, the baby becomes a toddler. Dr. Dominici and colleagues say this "primitive stepping reflex" is the foundation on which babies build their independent walking movement.

"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." "To walk independently," she adds, "babies learn two more primitives, which we believe handle balance control, step timing, and weight shifting."  The researchers believe their findings could help patients with walking disabilities improve their mobility.

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