After too many years being kept under wraps, the dangers of concussions in youth and professional sports are finally in the spotlight as athletes, coaches and parents make sure kids protect their noggins while they play. To do that, some researchers are looking to the animal kingdom for clues about better ways to protect the brain from injury — specifically bird brains, mantis shells and ram horns.
Cornell researchers have studied the mantis shrimp's ability to neutralize shock waves as it pummels the shells of prey, as described in a paper released in 2015. The mantis shrimp has a club made of strong chitin fibers arranged in a circular pattern resembling a spiral staircase. Researchers say the combination of the super strong material and its overlapping arrangement may help protect the mantis from some of the shock waves. This information could be useful in designing protective head gear.
But helmets can only do so much. They're good at preventing skull fractures, but they can't protect the brain from concussion. That's because concussions happen when the brain sloshes against the skull from the inside. Think of it like the yolk of an egg. You can wrap an egg in padding to make sure the shell doesn't break, but no amount of padding will prevent the yolk from getting damaged by the inside of the shell.
That's where woodpeckers and rams come in. Researchers realized woodpeckers can repeatedly and rapidly bang their heads against a tree without sustaining so much as a headache, while rams are able to frequently bash their heads together at speeds of 20 to 40 miles an hour without injury. How do they do it?
Tau proteins could be the missing link
Researchers found that woodpeckers have thick neck muscles and strong beaks, which help absorb blows. A 2014 study discovered that woodpeckers distribute the energy from pecking throughout its body, alleviating the pain and injury to the brain.
Woodpeckers also have unusually long tongues. The theory is that during pecking, these tongues compress the veins in the neck that carry blood away from the brain. This increases the volume of blood surrounding the brain, providing an extra layer of cushion between the brain and the inside of the skull.
In 2017, researchers from Boston University studied the brains of several woodpeckers preserved in ethanol. They discovered that two out of the three birds had tau protein in its brain. In humans, tau protein is present in the central nervous system and assists in the assembly and stabilization of neuronal microtubules. However, an over-accumulation of the protein in nerves can cause the protein to "leak out" in the brain and form insoluble neurofibrillary tangles.
A buildup of tau protein has been discovered in the brains of former NFL players who suffer from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a medical condition from repeated concussions and blows to the head. For many years, it was believed that the buildup was a factor in CTE. However, this new study has researchers wondering if the protein actually protects humans from brain injury or if woodpeckers just process the protein differently to be beneficial. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer yet.
Rams, in addition to their strong, flexible horns that absorb the shock of the collision, also have a mechanism that slows the flow of blood from the head to the body. This preventative effect was noted in humans when researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health found high school football players who played at higher altitudes had 30 percent fewer concussions. Their hypothesis is the higher altitude increases the volume of fluid in the cerebral venous system, providing a layer of protection similar to that seen in woodpeckers and rams. While it may not be possible for kids to play every game at higher elevations, researchers are working on protective equipment — like a band that could be worn around the neck — that could help increase the volume of blood around the brain to cushion it from blows during sports.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in May 2016.