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Thursday Complexity Post
January 9, 2014

Bird Brains and Ram Horns:

Clues on Concussions 


Woodpeckers bang their heads into the hard wood of trees thousands of times a day, and yet there is no evidence they get concussions. Long horn rams bash their heads together in frequent rituals that involve collisions at speeds of 20 to 40 miles an hour, and they don't seem to suffer brain damage either. Do these animals offer clues about protecting the brains of athletes?

Photo credit: Sid Hamm

The incidence of concussions among high school athletes has grown, and concern about safety has been fueled by continuing revelations from retired professional football players who suffered repeated head injuries before onset of the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as many as 3.8 million people a year suffer from sports related traumatic brain injuries.


Materials scientist Ainissa G. Ramirez, PhD, coauthor of Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game, quotes materials scientist and MIT Professor Lorna Gibson in a Huffington Post piece about woodpecker brains. Gibson, who has studied woodpeckers, explains, "It's a scaling phenomenon." A woodpecker brain is only about two grams-the mass of two paperclips, compared with a human brain, which averages about 1,400 grams. The lighter the brain, the better it will survive impact, Ramirez writes. She adds by way of explanation that if you drop a cell phone on the floor it will probably not be damaged, but a lap top dropped from the same height may need serious repair. Further, woodpecker brains are oriented at a 90 degree angle so that head-on force is widely distributed, and they fit snugly inside the skull with little room to slosh around.


LiveScience writer Stephanie Pappas gives even more detail. Researchers have found woodpeckers have thick neck muscles that diffuse blows, and a third inner eyelid that prevents the birds' eyes from popping out during repetitious hammering. The thick spongy bone surrounding the woodpecker brain has tiny projections that form a mineral mesh, Pappas writes, suggesting a microstructure that may act as armor for the brain. And she reports Chinese researchers have found the woodpecker's beak may have a microstructure designed to absorb impact rather than transferring it toward the brain.

Rams are big animals with big brains. What makes their head butting benign? Ramirez got some clues from Dr. Andrew Farke, a paleontologist who has studied dinosaurs. Ram's horn is porous bone covered with keratin, an elastic protein material that allows horns to give a little under impact. In addition to distributing the impact of the force, the flexible horn also lengthens the duration of the impact, which lessens the force. Writing in The New York Times, Gregory D. Meyer, PhD, director of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, says big horn sheep also have mechanisms that slow the return of blood from the head to the body, increasing the blood volume that fills their brains' vascular tree. In effect, both woodpeckers and rams have brains protected by the physiological equivalent of Bubble Wrap.


Our brains don't fill our skulls, so we risk concussions when our brains smack up against our skulls during sudden stops, starts and the collisions of contact sports. Meyers writes that football helmets have reduced fractured skulls, but haven't prevented concussions, because they don't protect what happens inside the skull. Ramirez suggests more research on how materials absorb force could make helmets better. Temperature studies also suggest new possibilities. 


Meyers and colleagues at the Colorado School of Public Health found that high school football players who played at higher altitudes had 30 percent fewer concussions. The researchers studied records of athletes in multiple sports from 497 high schools where altitude ranged from seven feet to 6,903 feet, and found all athletes who played at altitudes over 600 feet had 31 percent fewer concussions. "We hypothesize that higher altitude increased the volume of the cerebral venous system, a natural Bubble Wrap that surrounds the brain," and gives it a tighter fit inside the skull, Meyers wrote in The Times. While athletes can't play every game in Denver, he wrote, improved brain safety may come from more research on the biomechanics animals already have in use.




Remember PlexusCalls!



Friday, January 10, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Citizens, Community and Education in South Africa 
Guests: Louise van Rhyn and Lisa Kimball




How can citizens create a culture of collaboration, lead lives of contribution and become social architects of the communities they envision? The DVD South Africa: Alive With Possibility  has examples. Organizational Development guru and thought leader Peter Block says Louise van Rhyn has "the passion to restore high performance and humanity to our organizations and communities. She is a national treasure."  


Louise van Rhyn founded Symphonia, a group of organizations committed to sustainable transformation in people, teams, companies, organizations, and communities, in 2008. She has a doctoral degree in organizational change, and 25 years experience as a change practitioner with focus on large scale change in complex social systems. Through Symphonia for South Africa, a community focused-NPO, she is committed to mobilizing citizens to become actively involved addressing the educational crisis in South Africa. She initiated the innovative School@theCentreofCommunity leadership development process that creates an opportunity for business leaders and school principals to develop their leadership skills in co-learning partnerships. Louise has studied complex systems with Ralph Stacey and Patricia Shaw.


Lisa Kimball, PhD is an entrepreneur with more than 30 years experience as an organizational consultant with business, government and nonprofit organizations. As CEO of Metasystems Design Group and Executive Producer of Group Jazz she supported the efforts of teams, task forces, communities and organizations and specialized in helping them leverage the power of new technology and social media. She is active in online community work, organizational development (she also serves on the Board of the Organization Development Network) and is skilled in applying complexity-inspired principles. She has worked with hospitals applying Positive Deviance methodology to the problem of eliminating transmission of hospital acquired "superbug" infections. She has trained PD consultants and coaches as well as designing and developing materials to support hospital teams. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology; Cognition & Learning from Catholic University of America where her research focused on problem solving strategies of senior executives in complex systems. Lisa served as Plexus Institute President for three years and continues to serve Plexus as chair for learning programs.


Healthcare PlexusCalls  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Better Leadership Skills for Physicians, Better Care for Medically Complex Patients 
Guests: William Gunn and Andrew Valeras




For many physicians, their most challenging patients are medically complex, with one or more chronic illnesses, perhaps mental health or substance abuse issues, economic issues, and social isolation. They may not trust the healthcare system, and resist seeking care until a crisis takes them to the emergency room,

They are better served by a Medical Home approach, providing a place where they can work with a team of healthcare providers who know them and their situation. NH Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency has developed a longitudinal, seminar style [Systems] curriculum and an experiential Complex Continuity Clinic at the health center to better meet the needs of patients, and to provide residents with skills needed for patient care and the growing need for collaboration and teamwork in the practice of medicine. NHDFMR has also partnered with Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center to offer the Leadership Preventive Medicine Residency that further builds upon these skills and focuses on adaptive leadership. Read the guest bios.




Friday, January 24, 2014- 1-2 PM ET

Teamwork in Health Care 
Guests: James Begun, Gordon Mosser, and Daniel Pesut




Competent and skillfully coordinated teamwork improves every aspect of health care, yet it is rarely a focus of education in health medical disciplines. In their new book, Understanding Teamwork in Health Care, Gordon Mosser and Jim Begun, offer an enlightening and engaging guide to interdisciplinary cooperation among the professionals who work with patients and their families. Do you want to know more about team building, collaboration, communication and conflict resolution in teams? Read their complete bios.


Audio from all PlexusCall series is available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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