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Bird Brains and Ram Horns: Clues on Concussions

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 09, 2014

Woodpeckers bang their heads into the hard wood of trees thousands of times a day, and yet there is no evidence they get concussions. Long horn rams bash their heads together in frequent rituals that involve collisions at speeds of 20 to 40 miles an hour, and they don't seem to suffer brain damage either. Do these animals offer clues about protecting the brains of athletes?

The incidence of concussions among high school athletes has grown, and concern about safety has been fueled by continuing revelations from retired professional football players who suffered repeated head injuries before onset of the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as many as 3.8 million people a year suffer from sports related traumatic brain injuries.

Materials scientist Ainissa G. Ramirez, PhD, coauthor of Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game, quotes materials scientist and MIT Professor Lorna Gibson in a Huffington Post piece about woodpecker brains. Gibson, who has studied woodpeckers, explains, "It's a scaling phenomenon." A woodpecker brain is only about two grams-the mass of two paperclips, compared with a human brain, which averages about 1,400 grams. The lighter the brain, the better it will survive impact, Ramirez writes. She adds by way of explanation that if you drop a cell phone on the floor it will probably not be damaged, but a lap top dropped from the same height may need serious repair. Further, woodpecker brains are oriented at a 90 degree angle so that head-on force is widely distributed, and they fit snugly inside the skull with little room to slosh around.

LiveScience writer Stephanie Pappas gives even more detail. Researchers have found woodpeckers have thick neck muscles that diffuse blows, and a third inner eyelid that prevents the birds' eyes from popping out during repetitious hammering. The thick spongy bone surrounding the woodpecker brain has tiny projections that form a mineral mesh, Pappas writes, suggesting a microstructure that may act as armor for the brain. And she reports Chinese researchers have found the woodpecker's beak may have a microstructure designed to absorb impact rather than transferring it toward the brain.

Rams are big animals with big brains. What makes their head butting benign? Ramirez got some clues from Dr. Andrew Farke, a paleontologist who has studied dinosaurs. Ram's horn is porous bone covered with keratin, an elastic protein material that allows horns to give a little under impact. In addition to distributing the impact of the force, the flexible horn also lengthens the duration of the impact, which lessens the force. Writing in The New York Times, Gregory D. Meyer, PhD, director of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, says big horn sheep also have mechanisms that slow the return of blood from the head to the body, increasing the blood volume that fills their brains' vascular tree. In effect, both woodpeckers and rams have brains protected by the physiological equivalent of Bubble Wrap.

Our brains don't fill our skulls, we risk concussions when our brains smack up against our skulls during sudden stops, starts and the collisions of contact sports. Meyers writes that football helmets have reduced fractured skulls, but haven't prevented concussions, because they don't protect what happens inside the skull. Ramirez suggests more research on how materials absorb force could make helmets better. Temperature studies also suggest new possibilities.

Meyers and colleagues at the Colorado School of Public Health found that high school football players who played at higher altitudes had 30 percent fewer concussions. The researchers studied records of athletes in multiple sports from 497 high schools where altitude ranged from seven feet to 6,903 feet, and found all athletes who played at altitudes over 600 feet had 31 percent fewer concussions. "We hypothesize that higher altitude increased the volume of the cerebral venous system, a natural Bubble Wrap that surrounds the brain," and gives it a tighter fit inside the skull, Meyers wrote in The Times. While athletes can't play every game in Denver, he wrote, improved brain safety may come from more research on the biomechanics animals already have in use.

Photo credits: Sid Hamm and National Wildlife Federation

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  neuroscience  research  resilience 

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