Scientists at Arizona State University recently discovered that when mature members of a hive assume the duties of younger bees, namely staying home and looking after the babies, they’re able to stave off the physical and mental effects of aging. Older bees that leave the nest to gather food begin aging very quickly and demonstrate diminished mental acuity.
To observe this phenomenon, scientists first had to “trick” older bees in to resuming chores that they’d long since outgrown. So, they removed all the young nurse bees from a certain hive, giving the older bees a difficult choice to make: abandon the babies or starve. Interestingly, a portion of the older bees elected to stay at the hive, while others went out to forage.
“We knew from previous research that when bees stay in the nest and take care of larvae — the bee babies — they remain mentally competent for as long as we observe them,” said Gro Amdam, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. “However, after a period of nursing, bees fly out gathering food and begin aging very quickly. After just two weeks, foraging bees have worn wings, hairless bodies, and more importantly, lose brain function — basically measured as the ability to learn new things. We wanted to find out if there was plasticity in this aging pattern so we asked the question, ‘What would happen if we asked the foraging bees to take care of larval babies again?”
The team found that when required to take over nursing duties rather than hunt for food, the impaired bees started to recover. In fact, 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. Upon closer examination, it was found these improved bees had actually experienced chemical changes in their brain.
They found Prx6, a protein also found in humans that can help protect against dementia — including diseases such as Alzheimer’s — and they discovered a second and documented “chaperone” protein that protects other proteins from being damaged when brain or other tissues are exposed to cell-level stress.
According to Amdam, this discovery could have a profound effect on the way illness and disease is treated in aging humans. “Maybe social interventions – changing how you deal with your surroundings – is something we can do today to help our brains stay younger,” said Amdam. “Since the proteins being researched in people are the same proteins bees have, these proteins may be able to spontaneously respond to specific social experiences.”
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