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UD researcher studies motor skills of infants

NEWARK, DE.--James C. (Cole) Galloway, assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Delaware, has jumped feet first into research on the motor skills of infants and in so doing is helping turn some long-held notions about human development on their head.

A common view in infant motor development is that children learn to move their bodies in a strict sequence starting from the head down. Researchers and clinicians have used this “cephalocaudal progression” as a window into early brain development.

What a number of researchers, including Galloway, are finding is that the development of motor skills is much more complex than traditionally believed.

The focus of Galloway’s research is how young infants adapt their spontaneous leg kicking and arm flapping into purposeful movements, such as reaching. He believes that the seemingly random flapping and kicking are actually important forms of exploration, which help guide brain development and skill learning.

Galloway, whose work is conducted in the Department of Physical Therapy’s Motor Behavior Laboratory, has found that young infants are able to control their legs for reaching and exploring objects much earlier than they are able to control their arms. Indeed, infants as young as 8 weeks of age were able to reach with their feet within minutes of being presented an interesting toy.

Galloway said the quick adaptation of leg movements for a new purpose suggests three things, all of which are contrary to long-held beliefs:

  • Early leg movements can come under precise voluntary control.

  • The development of skilled reaching need not involve lengthy reaching practice.

  • Motor behaviors do not necessarily develop in a cephalocaudal pattern as dictated by brain development.

“We are attacking longstanding assumptions about how humans learn to move,” Galloway said, noting that the implication is often that hands are predestined to reach and feet to walk.

In his earlier work, Galloway “saw something different about the legs and arms.” He noticed that newborn infants move their legs in a stereotypical alternating pattern, whereas they move their arms in a wide variety of patterns. He and Esther Thelen, a professor at Indiana University, reasoned that the leg’s patterned movement might allow for easier control, and thus quicker adaptation for use in new skills.

Galloway decided to conduct a study pitting arm movements against leg movements. “We took children much too young to reach with their arms and tried presenting a toy to their arms. Of course, nothing happened,” he said. “But when we presented the toy to their legs, within minutes they were reaching. Interestingly, many infants would fuss and cry when the toy was presented to their arms, yet become excited when the toy was at their feet as if they knew which limbs could work and which couldn’t.”

The information gained from the study has important implications for rehabilitation of infants at risk for movement problems. Once looked on as reflexive and random, kicking movements may now provide therapists with a new avenue to encourage exploration and a potentially earlier milestone, feet reaching, for assessment.

“Early assessment and treatment is key,” Galloway said. “If we can show that specific practice is not always necessary, that there is therapeutic value in providing infants opportunities for exploratory movements such as flapping, the therapists can begin treatment early on vs. waiting for reaching to be delayed.

“In addition, by working on exploratory movements,” he said, “the hope is that ‘at risk’ infants are in turn building brains with greater exploratory capabilities. Because development builds on the past, a small increase in the ability to explore objects early on has the potential to have enormous impact on a child’s later level of function.”

Galloway is in his second year as a researcher at the University of Delaware. He earned his Ph.D. in neurophysiology at the University of Arizona then completed postdoctoral work in infant developmental psychology at Indiana University.

One reason he was drawn to UD, Galloway said, was the opportunity to have a research laboratory. Plus, his laboratory has received funding support through the Unidel Foundation, the University of Delaware Research Foundation, the American Physical Therapy Association and even support from the toy industry.

He said the University was attractive because of the research reputation nationally of the Department of Physical Therapy, and the excellent graduate students within the Biomechanics and Movement Sciences Program. The overall reputation enjoyed by UD, and the growing community of researchers working in infant and child development figured heavily as well. Galloway said he has a strong sense of service and works closely with both the Christiana Care medical community and parents throughout the region.

Feet reaching research has now gone international. Currently, Galloway and graduate student Michele Lobo have teamed up with Geert Savelsbergh, a professor at the Vrije University in Amsterdam, for the first in a series of studies on the effects of different forms of training on reaching with the hands and with the feet.

This initial project focuses on healthy infants, while the follow-up studies here at UD with graduate students Jill Heathcock and Anjana Bhat will focus on infants born at risk for coordination disorders such as cerebral palsy.

Galloway, Heathcock and Bhat made a presentation on “Feet Reaching: The Interaction of Experience and Ability” during the 13th biennial International Conference on Infant Studies held April 18-21 in Toronto.

Contact: Neil Thomas, (302) 831-6408, nfttwo@udel.edu
July 31, 2002