What can woodpeckers teach us about brain injury?
The people working on treating and preventing brain injuries often look toward the woodpecker. These birds smack their heads against trees thousands of times a day, yet they don’t get brain injuries.
Or, do they?
Because woodpeckers don’t show any signs of behavioral changes or memory issues as they age, we have all assumed their pecking didn’t leave any discernable mark on their brains. It turns out that is not the case. In fact, the brains of woodpeckers look startlingly like those from retired football players with CTE, according to a study from Boston University.
“No one has actually ever looked at a woodpecker brain to see if it has any neurological issues,” said Peter Cummings, a neuropathologist at Boston University. Cummings worked with two other scientists from Boston University – anatomist Don Siwek and neurologist George Farah – to see what exactly happens to the brains of woodpeckers.
Using dead specimens from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and Chicago’s Field Museum, the team was able to evaluate the brains of woodpeckers of various ages to see how their brain responds to hours of pummeling every day.
The team evaluated the brains much like they evaluate the brains of deceased football players. Samples of the brain were spliced into paper-thin sections and examined under a microscope. The researchers also used die that binds with tau proteins to identify signs of neurodegeneration.
The samples from the ten woodpeckers were compared against samples from five red-winged blackbirds, which do not hammer their heads against trees.
None of the brains from red-winged blackbirds showed signs of the telltale tau protein buildup associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Eight of the ten woodpeckers showed physical evidence of CTE.
The biggest question for the researchers is what this study actually means. The brains of woodpeckers may show signs of CTE, but their behavior indicates they may be immune to the actual mental effects of the permanent neurodegenerative disease. This is further complicated that the presence of tau in the brain doesn’t necessarily cause CTE.
“It’s not specific for a mechanism of injury, but it’s indicative of something not being right,” Cummings said.
Tau’s presence in the brains of woodpeckers raises a seemingly endless number of questions, but it also provides possibility. If we can learn how woodpeckers are able to negate the negative impact of tau buildup in the brain, we may be able to replicate the effect in humans. Of course, that is all far, far in the future from now.