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Woodpeckers and Traumatic Brain Injury

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So, one purpose of this blog is to get us to think and have fun. So imagine an animal that beats its head into a tree numerous times with significant force and velocity, every day. The woodpecker has a brain, and it gets slammed around quite a bit, but it adapts to this life.

It doesn’t have lots of special cushions, or an obviously different brain that other similar birds that don’t constantly pound their brains. These birds have been examined post mortem and seen to accumulate tau proteins much like human beings with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In humans, these proteins signal CTE or Alzheimer’s disease. In the woodpecker, such proteins may be protective.

Normally woodpeckers (unlike mice) are not bred in large numbers for medical experiments. But other, more common animals, do not self-inflict powerful head thumps without protection. From an evolutionary perspective, these organisms survive and, in fact, thrive on repeated brain trauma. The evolutionary literature demonstrates that this species has been around for a long time. Does it have special brain proteins that protect from harm? Such novel chemicals might be useful agents in combating human traumatic brain injury TBI.

Now, woodpeckers are not humans and do no not to perform complex cognitive tasks. But they display intelligent behavior so their brain could provide useful information on how the brain can protect itself. Evolution would not design a creature that was so devastated by normal repetitive head banging- it would not thrive. The force and velocity of the head hits had been measured- this bird should start having trouble. But evolution often yields clever adaptations to extreme behavior that humans have not discovered.

The woodpecker with a football helmet could be the team mascot. I’ve cheered for smaller accomplishments in high school sports. Thinking outside the mainstream can be dangerous, but experiments on woodpeckers must be done in a careful scientific manner. The neurons inside that small brain have found a way to survive continuous impact. Blood tests, MRI scans, and even eye exams of these small creatures could open a new pathway in research.

Steven H. Rauchman, M.D. is an eye physician and surgeon who has been in private practice for 30 years. He has served as a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) medical/legal expert for the last 6 years specializing in the area of personal injury and related traumatic brain injuries.

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