By Maria Panagiotidi
Scientists at Arizona State University have discovered that older honey bees can reverse brain aging when they take on nest responsibilities typically handled by much younger bees.
This finding could provide alternative interventions for the treatment of age-related dementia. Current research focuses mainly on potential new drug treatments.
The study was published in the scientific journal Experimental Gerontology by a team of scientists from ASU and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, led by Gro Amdam. The researchers found that tricking older, foraging bees into doing social tasks inside the nest causes changes in the molecular structure of their brains.
Previous research on honey bees has found that bees that stay in the nest and take care of larvae – the baby bees – remain mentally competent. However, after a period of nursing, bees fly out looking for food and begin aging very quickly. The effects of aging are visible after two weeks in the appearance of the foraging bees (worn wings, hairless bodies) and more importantly, in their brain function. Specifically, these bees lose the ability to learn new things.
Influenced by recent studies on brain plasticity, Amdam and colleagues wanted to see what would happen if the foraging bees returned to the nest and took care of the larval babies again.
The results of the experiment were fascinating. After 10 days, about 50 percent of the older bees caring for the nest and larvae had significantly improved their ability to learn new things.
The change observed in the older bees was not just behavioural but also physiological; Amdam and colleagues discovered a change in proteins in the bees’ brains. After comparing the brains of the bees that improved to those that did not, they found that two proteins had noticeably changed: Prx6 and “chaperone” protein. Both proteins have been previously found to protect the brain against diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
This finding could lead to the development of a drug that could help older people maintain brain function. However, many years of basic research and trials will be needed before such a drug becomes commercially available.
For now, Amdam and colleagues propose that social interventions might help our brains stay younger. Since the proteins being researched in people are the same as those found in bees, it is possible that these proteins may be able to respond to specific social experiences. Further research is needed on mammals in order to confirm that the same molecular changes occur on other species’ brains.
Nicholas Baker, Florian Wolschin, Gro V. Amdam. Age-related learning deficits can be reversible in honeybees Apis mellifera. Experimental Gerontology, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.exger.2012.05.011