Woodpeckers give themselves brain damage – but this could be a good thing, scientists say

Birds have symptoms similar to those seen in neurodegenerative disease patients

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Sunday 04 February 2018 17:17
Woodpecker behaviour could help treat human neurodegenerative diseases, scientists say

Scientists have found evidence of brain damage in woodpeckers, but suggested this may not be a bad thing.

Symptoms in the birds’ brains were similar to those observed in American football players with head injuries and people with neurodegenerative diseases.

However, the scientists proposed that rather than being a sign of harm to the creatures, the accumulation of a protein called tau could actually be protecting woodpeckers from injury.

Woodpeckers slam their heads into trees at around 15 miles per hour, up to 12,000 times per day.

While past research has looked at the mechanisms protecting the birds from injury, scientists have never actually examined them to see if injuries occur.

“There have been all kinds of safety and technological advances in sports equipment based on the anatomic adaptations and biophysics of the woodpecker assuming they don’t get brain injury from pecking,” said Professor Peter Cummings, a neurobiologist at the Boston University School of Medicine.

“The weird thing is, nobody’s ever looked at a woodpecker brain to see if there is any damage.”

Professor Cummings and his colleagues obtained museum specimens of woodpeckers and analysed their brains for the presence of tau protein, using red-winged blackbirds as a comparison.

The team’s analysis was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

They found there were far higher levels of tau protein in the brains of woodpeckers.

When brains are damaged, tau accumulates and can disrupt brain function.

While in humans elevated levels of tau have been linked with traumatic head injury and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, the scientists suggested that in the woodpeckers it did not make sense as a symptom of brain injury

“The earliest woodpeckers date back 25 million years – these birds have been around for a long time,” said Professor Cummings.

“If pecking was going to cause brain injury, why would you still see this behaviour? Why would evolutionary adaptations stop at the brain? There’s possibility that the tau in woodpeckers is a protective adaptation and maybe not pathological at all.”

In moderation, tau works to stabilise brain cells, and the scientists said its presence in woodpecker brains could actually have a protective function.

“The basic cells of the brain are neurons, which are the cell bodies, and axons, which are like telephone lines that communicate between the neurons,” said George Farah, who worked on the study as a graduate student.

“The tau protein wraps around the telephone lines – it gives them protection and stability while still letting them remain flexible.”

Understanding the potential protective function of tau, as well as its role in injury, could be beneficial for humans as well, according to the scientists.

“If the tau accumulation is a protective adaptation, is there something we can pick out to help humans with neurodegenerative diseases? The door’s wide open to find out what’s going on and how we can apply this to humans,” said Professor Cummings.

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