Archive for January 16th, 2020

Mountain Goats Woodpeckers and Football Players

January 16th, 2020

What do mountain goats, woodpeckers, and football players all have in common? Head butts. Why is it that a woodpecker can pound his head millions of times and not suffer from debilitating brain injuries, and while, we’re at it, what about rams? Heck, even their name identifies what they do.

There have been numerous studies of woodpeckers to attempt to determine what the differentiator is relative to brain injuries and their natural assignment of beating holes in trees with their beaks. These beaks, if you haven’t noticed, are attached to their heads which is where their tiny little brains hang out.

Woodpeckers have to peck pretty hard to get the bugs and insects they’re after. It was originally believed they had a special bone-like, foam material between their brain and their skull, but after dissecting a few deceased woodpeckers, according to MIT professor, Lorna Gibson, it was clear they did not have any foam lining. She and several other scientists dug in and found woodpecker facts.

The woodpecker is absolutely the headbanger of the bird world. They also peck to profess their love and to layout their territory. Their pecking speed would absolutely produce a concussion for a human. They bang their beak at 15 mph between 700 and 12,000 times a day, at up to 20 times per second. That, my friends, is a lot of pecking.

They have thick, strong neck muscles which contract just before their bill hits the surface. This allows some of the force to dissipate down through the bird’s body which protects the bird’s skull from the full blow. They also have unequal upper and lower beaks which lowers the force of the peck from hitting the brain.

Another shock absorber is their tongue. Woodpeckers have tongue supports that wrap around their brains, and work as a safety harness. Plus their brain weighs only two grams and is tightly fit in the skull.

That configuration keeps the brain from banging around inside the skull. Because their tails help brace them against the tree and their toes also are built to brace them, you can say they’ve found the proper pecking posture.

In spite of all the protections Mother Nature provides for them, woodpeckers do get brain damage, but they also have an accumulation of a protein called tau which actually protects them from suffering from neurodegenerative diseases like the chronic traumatic encephalopathy that our football players get.

Because of these studies, all kinds of technological and safety advances have been implemented in sports equipment, but it is believed that the presence of tau in woodpeckers is a protective adaptation, because in moderation, it works to stabilize brains cells.

Tau is typically found in human patients with brain diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to traumatic head injuries. Consequently, it is now up to scientists to discover why tau is good for woodpeckers and how that protein can be adapted to protect football players and others from brain injuries.

Rams, on the other hand, typically bash their heads together at a speed ranging from 20 to 40 mph without injury. How do they do it? Rams have strong, flexible horns that absorb much of the shock of the collisions, in addition to a physical anomaly that slows the blood flow from the head to the body.

Scientists studying football players in Colorado discovered that football players at higher altitudes had 30% fewer head injuries. Their hypothesis is that higher altitudes increase the volume of fluid in the cerebral venous system which provides another layer of protection.

So, maybe the solution is to equip football helmets with horns, to genetically modify the players’ toes, tongues, neck muscles and cerebral blood flows, to make sure only those players with smaller brains take or give the hits, and for goodness sake, to move all of the teams to the mountains.

Or maybe we should study the impact of tau?

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