Could woodpeckers hold the key to avoiding sporting brain injuries?

Human trials for collar, inspired by woodpeckers, that increases bloodflow to the brain for extra insulation

Have you ever looked at a woodpecker repeatedly smashing its face against a tree and thought “I wish I could do that”? Of course not, that would be weird. But how woodpeckers manage to cope with repeated impact has inspired researchers to re-evaluate how we deal with brain trauma on the pitch, or behind enemy lines.

Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem and an expert in concussion (he was played by Alec Baldwin in Concussion, as a bonus qualification) believes the answer lies not in helmets, but by taking inspiration from the animal kingdom.

After analysing woodpeckers and bighorn sheep – both of which sustain repeated blows to the head – the team concluded that the animals manage to prevent injury by adjusting the pressure inside their skulls. The woodpecker has a particularly sly solution, where its tongue wraps around the back of its head and neck, extending before each impact and pressing down on the muscle attached to the jugular.

A collar could do the same thing as a woodpecker’s tongue, the team reasoned, by applying compression to the jugular veins. This would increase the blood flow to the brain and cushion it from the inside, slightly reducing the quantity of blood flowing back down to the heart every time it beats. In rats, this seems to have markedly reduced the signs of brain damage.

In essence, while a helmet provides cushioning from the outside, the collar provides one from within. If it perfectly mimics nature, it’ll be extremely effective at stopping the brain “sloshing”.

Helmets can only do so much, given they’re designed to prevent skull fractures. They don’t address the core problem at the heart of impact injuries: the way the brain “sloshes” around in cerebrospinal fluid. There’s already research that suggests athletes sustain fewer brain injuries when playing at higher altitudes – and it’s believed that could be a consequence of blood volumes increasing, giving them less room to “slosh”.

“What it does is fill the cerebral vascular tree in and around the brain, making the collisions more elastic. It creates an artificial air bag making the brain more solid to the skull,” Dr Gregory Myer, director of research and the Human Sports Medicine Lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told Cincinnati. “It doesn’t slow blood flow going in, just coming out. So impacts just pass through the head as a solid unit.”

Now it’s time to test whether artificially triggering an increase can work with real, breathing humans. A company called Q30 Innovations has developed a prototype that is being tested by Myer and his team with ice hockey and American football players, who are undergoing MRI scans to capture brain information at various points in the season, but it won’t be an easy thing to prove. Not only do injuries not always correspond with symptoms, but risk of injury varies from athlete to athlete, making a clean trial difficult to administer.

Still, we should hopefully see preliminary results soon, and then a larger clinical trial will be undertaken for both female and non-helmeted sports.

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Images: Patrick Nygren and Q30 Innovations

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