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Cerebral palsy: improving children’s movement through brain stimulation

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Around 2,000 babies in the UK are diagnosed with cerebral palsy every year.[1,2] Many children with cerebral palsy will have difficulty controlling their muscles and movement and can face a lifetime of challenges. Professor Helen Dawes of Oxford Brookes University is investigating whether a safe, painless and non-invasive type of brain stimulation can help improve a child’s movement and function when combined with physical therapy to both their arms and their legs. She hopes the results from this pilot study will lead to future large-scale clinical trials to further investigate this potentially life-improving treatment for children with cerebral palsy.

Action Medical Research and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Charitable Trust are together funding this study

How are children’s lives affected now?

Cerebral palsy is a lifelong condition caused by damage to the brain before or during birth. Children with the condition develop stiff muscles and bone and joint deformities that can affect their ability to engage in daily activities. The severity of symptoms can vary greatly from child to child.

“Some children with cerebral palsy experience movement problems that affect only one side of their body – while others can be affected mainly in their legs, or in all four limbs,” says Professor Dawes.

A treatment that involves stimulating areas of the brain by applying a weak electrical current through electrodes attached to their scalp could potentially help improve the movement and function of children with cerebral palsy when combined with physical therapy.

“However, no-one has yet explored the effectiveness of combining this technique with physical therapy involving both the arm and the leg, even though many children experience difficulties in both limbs,” says Professor Dawes.

How could this research help?

“Our ultimate goal is to develop an effective new treatment combination that can help improve the lives of children with cerebral palsy,” says Professor Dawes.

The researchers will carry out a pilot study involving children with cerebral palsy to investigate if a short programme of brain stimulation can help to improve movement and function when combined with physical therapy for their arms and legs. Some participants will also have a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of their brain before starting the study.

“We will analyse these brain scans to look for features that can help predict who is likely to benefit from the treatment,” says Professor Dawes.

The researchers will also evaluate how easy it is to recruit and retain children on the trial – as well as record any side effects.

“If our results are promising, we hope that they will help guide the design of future larger clinical trials to evaluate the effectiveness of this exciting new form of combined treatment,” says Professor Dawes.


  1. Wimalasundera, N. & Stevenson, V.L., Cerebral palsy. BMJ Practical Neurology 2016; 16:184-194.
  2. Office for National Statistics. Vital statistics in the UK: births, deaths and marriages – 2018 update. [website accessed 23 July 2019]

Research table

Project details

Project Leader Professor N Helen Dawes, PhD
Location College of Medicine and Health, University of Exeter Medical School, University of Exeter
Project Team Dr Melanie K Fleming, PhD
Mrs Rachel Buckingham, MBChB
Mr Tim Theologis, MSc PhD FRCS
Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg, PhD
Dr Dido Green, MSc PhD FRSA
Dr Jennifer M Ryan, PhD
Dr Cherry B Kilbride, PhD
Other Locations Department of Sport, Health Science and Social Work, Oxford Brookes University
Welcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging, FMRIB, University of Oxford.
Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
Paediatric Occupational Therapy, Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.
Department of Clinical Sciences, Brunel University London.
Grant Awarded
Grant Amount £205,322
Start Date
End Date
Duration 27 months
Grant Code (GN number) GN2813


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