New research suggests that woodpeckers could suffer from brain damage after repeatedly ramming their heads against the trunks of trees, just as they are known to do. This counters previous research from more than 40 years ago which hinted that the birds are seemingly impervious to brain injuries, despite the aforementioned tendency.
In a study published Friday in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of researchers analyzed brain tissue from various species of woodpeckers, with similar tissues from red-winged blackbirds serving as controls. After studying the woodpecker brain tissue samples, the researchers discovered an unusually high buildup of the protein known as tau, which, according to Reuters, is commonly associated with humans suffering from brain damage caused by head trauma and neurodegenerative conditions. This tau buildup, which was found in eight of the 10 woodpecker brains, was not present in the control group of blackbirds, which are not known to bang their heads and beaks against hard objects.
Lead author George Farah, a graduate student at the Boston University School of Medicine at the time of the study, said that the research goes against the findings of a 1976 study, which reported that there were no signs of injuries in certain parts of woodpeckers’ brains. That study, however, used outdated staining techniques to look for signs of brain damage, and as Science magazine noted, that inspired Farah and his colleagues to conduct another study, this time leveraging present-day technology to see if the results would be different.
Despite the tau buildups found in most of the sample woodpeckers, the findings do not exactly suggest that the woodpeckers definitely had brain damage, or might suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to University of Pennsylvania neurotrauma researcher Douglas Smith. While tau could be dislodged due to traumatic head injuries, thereby creating buildups that clog the brain, Science added that reasonable amounts of the protein can help in stabilizing the brain’s neurons and allowing them to retain their shape.
Going forward, the researchers hope to find out if the woodpeckers do indeed get brain damage as a result of the tau buildup, or if the accumulation of the protein is a further protective mechanism that helps the birds survive the intense g-force that results when they peck for food or bang their heads. According to Science, woodpeckers have specialized neck muscles and cranial bones that shield them from the 1,200 Gs of force caused by their pecking, which is substantially more than the 60 to 100 Gs required for a human to suffer a concussion.
“If indeed pecking is leading to increased tau accumulation, our study can’t tell the difference between tau that might be protective or pathological,” said Boston University neuropathologist Peter Cummings, who worked with Farah on the study.
“However, you can hypothesize that because the birds have been in existence for millions of years and are thriving, that trauma-related neurodegenerative disease might not be an issue.”
In any case, the new study on woodpeckers and the potential brain damage they might suffer from their pecking and head-banging could, as Science magazine suggested, help “inspire new ways” to protect football players, many of whom have suffered from CTE and other related conditions as a result of the many hits they take to the head.