How Dogs Can Make Our lives Rich. Mystery of concussions.

It was one of our long evening walks. We walked past our hotel, where we stayed during our trip from West to East coast. Suddenly, I heard hammering. It hurt my ears. We walked in that direction and the knocking became louder. I looked up and in a light of a street lamp I saw him. The woodpecker was sitting on a side of a trunk of a tall pine tree with no branches. I swear I could see his red cap half-way up its trunk. Our presence didn’t bother him a bit. We watched for a while, Bent all in attention. Bird’s head was drumming and hammering away. He was clattering while working hard on a meal.

Then I thought of something. Concussion! Brain trauma. How can he be doing that? His whole life long? Woodpeckers live 10-12 years. It’s a lot of banging just to make a living. Of course, woodpeckers don’t get life nor even health threatening brain damage. I remember a recent deluge of publicized cases of sport induced closed head trauma. NHL and NFL are actually working on that problem very hard. Sudden attention to that was brought by a fact of very prominent athletes being incapacitated for quite a while after collisions on the field or on ice. When the hockey player loses his entire season to concussion, it is a big deal. He loses his health, team loses him and somebody is losing a lot of money. Treatment is negligible, relies on spontaneous recovery. All we can do is to monitor progress with psychological testing. Therefore, prevention is crucial. They teach all players how to avoid them and at least be prepared.  Equipment is being redesigned. Rules of the game are being tightened. Players are being tested and re-tested. And we still don’t know the long term effects of closed head trauma during the contact competition.

But woodpeckers don’t have these problems. How is so?

I didn’t think they had done any research on that topic, but it was done. There is actually literature addressing the problem of head trauma in woodpeckers.

They did one of first studies analyzing fast speed movie of woodpecker at work. How did they get to him with such a specialized equipment and on time? There’s a story behind this paper. They did a movie in an office of a park ranger in California. They kept the woodpecker in the office since he had a broken wing and couldn’t fly. Each time he heard the ranger typing on his classic typewriter, the bird started pecking on the tree trunk, they kept in the same room. All they had to do was to bring a high-speed camera and start typing.

Researchers from MIT conducted a more recent study, which they published in The Journal of Zoology in 2006. The study analyzed the acceleration and deceleration of the animal’s brain, using highly sophisticated mathematical formulas and graphs. They also compared shapes of human’s and bird’s skulls and drew the conclusions drawn, why woodpeckers do not suffer concussions. They came out with three reasons.

1. Their brains are smaller, which reduces stress on the brain for a given acceleration,

2. The duration of impact is short, which increases tolerable acceleration and

3. The orientation of the brain is such that increases area of contact between the skull and the brain (that one I understand).

And here you have it. They did not address the difference in neuron complexity between birds and humans.

There is a fine line between the public, which likes to watch collisions be it on field or ice and players, who usually want to avoid them.  For participation, players are being awarded serious money. They know the risks. Or do they? Will they still agree 20 years from now? And what about boxing? I will not touch on that topic. Not now.

Besides health benefits of walking with your dog, the time in solitude gives you time to think.

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