If you have been to a conference where I am at, either speaking or asking questions, you have undoubtedly heard me mention woodpeckers. Usually after I ask the question or bring up the topic there is laughing. I don’t know if the laughing is because of the concept or the laughing is because they think I am an idiot (the later would not be completely out of line).
Well, I guess I may have been ahead of the curve; I cannot claim full credit on the thought as Jonathan Lifshitz, PhD and I had a discussion about a year ago about the woodpecker. A Chinese scientist has looked more in-depth into this animal as it relates to concussions, via theStar.com;
“These findings would be applied to human protective devices such as sports helmet designs,” says Yubo Fan, a bioengineer at Beijing’s Beihang University and the senior study author.
Fan says woodpecker skulls have evolved with several varied layers of protection that allow them to absorb the fierce — up to 1,000 G — forces of their occupation.
And, he says, some of these anatomical traits may well be translatable into helmet features.
The study was released Wednesday by the online journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.
Of interest was what anatomical features the small bird had that may be preventing brain injury. There were three identifiable features that may be worth looking into:
- Lower beak is longer: directing impact forces away from the brain
- Skull casing was different: uneven/spongy plates making it stronger
- Special bone: surrounds the skull and acts like a “restraint” (image below)
This study is not the first of its kind, rather one of the first gaining traction in the media. It is not a novel concept to wonder how a very small bird would be able to function after deliberately performing an action that could cause a brain injury. In fact one of the first study was in 1979.
Here are some more examples;
- Woodpecker pecking: how woodpeckers avoid brain injury, L.J. Gibson
- A mechanical analysis of woodpecker drumming and its application to shock-absorbing systems, Sang-Hee Yoon & Snugmin Park
Obviously this information is in its infancy even though P.R. May et all brought it to the scientific literature in 1976. However it does show some promise on its surface, but it remains that can an external feature on a helmet stop the brain from moving? It is most likely not possible but the fact that we have some information from nature gives us all a reason to keep on looking for answers;
Toronto neurologist Dr. Charles Tator, an anti-concussion crusader, says physicians have long wondered how woodpeckers avoid brain damage.
“It is always a medical curiosity why woodpeckers can withstand the huge forces and humans can’t,” he says.
Tator says any information from nature that could lead to a better helmet would be welcome.
However, he says, a helmet-based “seatbelt” for the head would not likely protect human athletes from concussion.
Keeping the head in place would not stop the brain within from bouncing around in reaction to an impact, he says.
“It doesn’t matter how tightly something external is supplied to the head as long as what’s inside the head is still jiggling,” he says.
A biomechanist also agrees with Tator;
University of British Columbia biomechanics expert and helmet maker Peter Cripton agrees with Tator, but says the woodpecker study might still be useful for people trying to create safer headgear.
Cripton, who developed a new football helmet at the school, says that the woodpecker skull structures that dissipate force away from the brain might well be incorporated into safer equipment.
“We could possibly simulate some of the energy-shunting characteristics of the skull, if that is, in fact, what’s different between woodpeckers and humans,” he said.
“I’m interested in any and all approaches to improving a helmet’s ability to prevent concussion.”
But Cripton also says that woodpeckers may also have more robust brain cells that can simply resist injury better than their human counterparts.
I will look forward to the laughs I get, but possibly that will give someone the impetus to continue research or look into the other animals I get laughs from; the ramming animals like deer, elk, etc.