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    Are woodpeckers giving themselves brain damage?

    03woodpecker -- This is the woodpecker species analyzed in this study. (Arlene Koziol/The Field Museum)
    Arlene Koziol/The Field Museum
    The woodpecker species analyzed in this study.

    Is that crazy woodpecker out there in the woods giving himself brain damage with his incessant rat-a-tat?

    Helmet makers hoping to protect human brains have studied the birds to see how they cope with the repeated slamming of their heads into trees. But new research has raised questions about the effect of that high-impact pecking on the birds.

    The researchers say that a study of woodpecker brains found that they contain buildups of tau proteins, which are associated with brain damage in humans.

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    “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brains, which previous research has discovered is indicative of brain injury,” said lead author George Farah, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the Boston University School of Medicine, in a statement from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

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    The researchers used bird brains from the Field Museum and the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The study is being published in the journal PLOS One.

    “There have been all kinds of safety and technological advances in sports equipment based on the anatomic adaptations and biophysics of the woodpecker assuming they don’t get brain injury from pecking. The weird thing is, nobody’s ever looked at a woodpecker brain to see if there is any damage,” said Peter Cummings of the Boston University School of Medicine, another study author.

    The Field Museum
    Woodpeckers preserved in alcohol at the Chicago museum

    Woodpeckers bash their heads into trees — or suburban houses — with a force of 1,200 to 1,400 Gs, the authors said. It only takes a force of 60 to 100 Gs to give a human a concussion.

    Researchers hoping to better protect the brains of humans, like football players and military personnel, who are subjected to head impacts have sought to discover the woodpeckers’ secret to success.

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    Neurons in the brain are connected by axons, which are like telephone lines between the neurons. The tau protein wraps around the “telephone lines,” giving them protection and stability while letting them remain flexible, Farah said.

    But too much tau buildup can disrupt communication from neuron to neuron. When the brain is damaged, tau collects and disrupts neuron function, the researchers said.

    The two museums lent the researchers specimens of downy woodpeckers pickled in alcohol. Researchers then removed the brains and then studied them. As a control, researchers also looked at red-winged blackbirds that don’t use their heads as battering rams.

    The researchers found that the woodpecker brains had far more tau protein than the blackbird brains.

    Researchers said the finding raised intriguing questions. Maybe, they suggested, the tau protein changes in the woodpeckers’ brains aren’t “damage,” after all.

    Martin Finucane can be reached at Martin.Finucane@globe.com