Sports Medicine Research: In the Lab & In the Field: Pecking Away at the Truth about Woodpecker Brains’ Resistance to Brain Injury (Sports Med Res)


Monday, March 12, 2018

Pecking Away at the Truth about Woodpecker Brains’ Resistance to Brain Injury

Tau accumulations in the brains of woodpeckers.

Farah G, Siwek D, Cummings P. PLoS One. 2018 Feb 2;13(2):e0191526

Take Home Message: Tau accumulations were seen in woodpeckers but not in control bird brains. This suggests that that pecking may induce the accumulation of tau in woodpecker brains.
Tau accumulation, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), may be a result of repetitive mild traumatic brain injury. Many believe that woodpeckers – who experience over 1000g’s while pecking – are resistant to neurotrauma and have become a model for head safety equipment (helmet). However, we have little evidence that woodpecker are resistant to repetitive head trauma. Therefore, the authors dissected the brains of previously preserved brain tissues of 10 woodpeckers and 5 control birds to observe for tau accumulation (neurofibrillary tangles) and axonal injury. The authors used a section of human brain tissue with confirmed Alzheimer’s disease as the positive control and 5 red-winged black bird brains as the experimental control. The authors observed abnormal tau accumulations, especially in the frontal lobe, of 8 out of the 10 woodpecker brains, and 0 of the red-winged black bird brains.

While many believe woodpeckers are protected against brain trauma, the repetitive pecking may induce tau accumulation. The researchers were only able to use 3 of the woodpecker brains to identify global tau accumulations; however, it was interesting that one of the woodpecker’s brain with the presence of tau accumulation was a juvenile, which suggests this abnormal tau accumulation may not be a result of aging. It should also be noted that all the controls, which had no tau accumulation, were adults. It was also remarkable that 8 out of the 10 woodpecker brains had abnormal tau accumulation in the frontal lobe that resembled what we find in humans, where they appear as “dot-like” and “thread-like” projections patterns in the brains. More research is necessary to confirm these findings; however, the author’s findings suggest the woodpecker may be a suitable animal model to further study CTE. Currently, medical professionals need to be aware of the risks of repetitive head impacts, and educate their athletes about the risks that may be associated with repetitive impacts. This includes dispelling misinformation and putting the available evidence in proper context. This study is a necessary reminder that not everyone will get CTE but it is critical that we discover why some patients are at risk.

Questions for Discussion: Do you think athletes would be more likely to report head impacts if they knew it could lead to a long-term disease like CTE? 

Written by: Jane McDevitt
Reviewed by: Jeffrey Driban

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