The NFL has been under a lot of heat over concussion injuries in its players and the long-term brain injury and health impacts. With the size of the player and the speed he runs, it’s not hard to imagine the sheer force and damage that can occur from even a single collision. Woodpeckers, though, bang their head about 12,000 times a day at 10 times the impact of the average football hit. Why don’t woodpeckers get concussions?
The human brain floats in the skull in what is known as cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid acts as a cushion between the brain and the skull and helps lessen the impact of a blow to the head. Sudden, violent motions, such has from helmet-to-helmet contact, twist the brain or slam it against the skull. The movement stretches and damages the brain cells, causing problems in how the brain processes information.
Woodpeckers avoid brain injury because of the way their heads are designed. The bird’s brain fits snugly in the skull, so the brain doesn’t slosh around after a head impact. The brain is also oriented differently. Brains are shaped like a walnut: an oval-shaped dome. In humans, the dome faces the top of the head. In woodpeckers, the dome faces forward so the force of an impact is spread over a larger area. Size helps, too. Similar to how a cellphone stays intact after falling off the table while a laptop may not, a smaller brain has a better chance of getting away unharmed after a head injury.
The NFL recently found that more concussions were diagnosed in the 2015 season than in 2014. Officials and team physicians are not sure if the increase is due to more self-reporting by players and active identification of injury by trainers. Let’s root for Super Bowl 50 this Sunday to be full of drama on the field and 100 percent concussion free.
Maggie Kuo, PhD, is the former Communications and Social Media Coordinator for APS. Catch more of her writing in the Careers Section of Science Magazine.