A Bird-Brained Question: Can Woodpeckers Help Prevent Brain Injuries?

We have long known that football is incredibly hard on the body. Shoulder, hand, and knee injuries are par for the course, but only recently have we been paying serious attention to the issue of brain injuries in the NFL. Doctors are studying concussions, its links to dementia, and links to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain condition believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It’s commonly found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive head trauma.

Scientists recently found an interesting connection between patients diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and, of all things, woodpeckers. Although it’s not that strange if you think about it. If you’ve ever been annoyed by a woodpecker in your yard, you know that they spend hours slamming their heads back and forth into a tree. They’ll do this 20 times a second, at 15 miles an hour, thousands of times a day. Despite all of this hammering, though, woodpeckers don’t appear to develop serious brain damage. If they did, they likely would have knocked themselves extinct a million years ago.

However, a recently released study shows that, unlike previously believed, woodpeckers actually may suffer some consequences from their relentless head-banging. This discovery could help future brain injury research.

For the study, researchers acquired dead birds from a museum, including some blackbirds as a control group. They searched their brains for a protein called tau. Usually a long, branching structure of nerve cells, tau dislodges from brain fibers during injury. After repeated injuries, tau clumps up in the brain, disrupting information flow. None of the blackbirds had tau accumulations, but eight out of 10 of the woodpeckers did.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the level of tau was toxic and the woodpeckers were brain-damaged. In fact, some tau accumulation can be protective, as it lives inside the cells and can help stabilize neurons. It’s unknown how much tau can dislodge and accumulate in a woodpecker brain before the bird might start behaving abnormally. A co-author of the study, Peter Cummings, who did not expect to see any tau in the birds’ brains, noted that more work needs to be done to find out if the excess tau is a species adaptation to deal with head trauma, or if woodpeckers have ways of dissolving too much tau and prevent CTE.

Other things to keep in mind is that, of course, woodpecker brains and human brains are not the same. Human brains slosh around more in the skull than bird brains, giving them more room for injury. And one interesting thing that woodpeckers have that we don’t? A long tongue that wraps underneath, up and around the back of the skull. A muscle that rests against the bird’s jugular vein moves the tongue. In theory, a woodpecker can use that muscle to reduce the amount of blood flowing from its skull. In this way, it could protect its brain from sloshing around by filling its brain with blood. Some researchers think it’s possible to design protective gear using this same design—a collar that puts just enough pressure on the neck to add a little bit of blood (safely) around the brain.

Of course, all of this needs much more research, but perhaps woodpeckers are the key to unlocking some mysteries about traumatic brain injuries and CTE.

If you or a loved one suffered a traumatic brain injury due to someone else’s negligence, look to the TBI attorneys at Crandall and Pera to help. Our experienced legal team works tirelessly to get you the compensation you deserve. Please call our Ohio office at 877-686-8879, or in Kentucky at 877-651-7764. You can also fill out our contact form to schedule a no-obligation consultation.