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Bird Brain Damage? Woodpecker Brains Have The Same Protein Found In People With CTE

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Don't woodpeckers get dizzy with all the drilling they do with their beaks? A new study finds that contrary to the previously held belief, woodpeckers do, in fact, get some form of brain damage from the act.

Woodpecker Brains

The woodpecker gets its name from its signature act of pecking or drilling hard surfaces such as wood. In 1976, an influential research showed that despite all the drilling, woodpeckers did not exhibit any apparent signs of brain damage. Since then, the study has been cited in over a hundred journals, which support the conclusion that the birds do not suffer from brain injuries as a result of the behavior.

However, the recent findings of researchers from Boston University suggest that woodpeckers actually do get brain damage. In fact, the evidence that they found runs similar to the evidence of brain damage in humans with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.

Tau Protein Accumulation In Woodpeckers

In order to gather data, the group examined the brains of 10 woodpeckers of different species such as the northern flicker and the yellow-bellied sapsucker, as well as the brains of a control group of bird species that does not repeatedly bang its head on hard surfaces.

Interestingly, the group found that the brains of the woodpeckers actually had an abnormal accumulation of Tau proteins while the control group did not. In humans, the abnormal accumulation of Tau proteins in the brain is a major signifier of brain damage specifically CTE, which is believed to be triggered by concussions and repeated hits to the head.

Physical Adaptation

Because of the 1976 study, it was previously believed that woodpeckers have physically evolved and adapted to the head banging by developing strong neck muscles and long tongues as these could supposedly protect or brace the skull for impact. However, the new findings suggest that even if the species has been around for thousands of years, their brains still have not completely adapted to protect itself from an impact.

It's worth noting that there are different types of tau proteins. According to the researchers, it's also possible that the tau proteins in the woodpeckers' brains actually protect the brain instead of harming it.

Understanding CTE

Results of the study may aid researchers in trying to understand CTE better. Since its first diagnosis in the year 2000, researchers have been trying to understand the mechanisms behind the brain disorder. So far, CTE can only be diagnosed once the person has already died.

With the results of the research, future studies may focus on how woodpeckers could withstand such strong impacts and still function properly. Compared to football players, for instance, woodpeckers habitually bang their heads on hard surfaces with forces of up to 1,400 g. That's about 10 times stronger than the force of a football tackle that may result in a concussion.

Perhaps one day, woodpeckers could pave the way not just to understanding the mechanisms leading to CTE, but how to avoid it as well.

The study is published in PLOS ONE.

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