Secret to Youth: Elderly Bees?
Could observations of bee behavior help us develop new, non-drug treatments for age-related dementia?
A new study from Arizona State University, published in the journal Experimental Gerontology, suggests that might be possible. Researchers from Arizona State University and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, led by Dr. Gro Amdam, conducted an experiment in which they altered older bees’ daily routines. The scientists found that, given an unusual change of nest responsibilities, older honey bees can functionally reverse brain aging.
Normally, honey bees start their lives working as nurse bees, feeding the larvae and cleaning their colony’s nest. As long as they work inside the hive, they remain mentally competent. However, as they grow older, their primary responsibility shifts to foraging. Amdam describes the effect this job has on bees, and how it led to his team’s hypothesis:
“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?’”
In order to explore this issue, the scientists guided the bees into performing more social tasks (working as nurse bees). First, they removed all the younger nurse bees from the nest, leaving the larvae and queen unattended. When the older, foraging bees returned home, they lessened their activity for a few days, and then adjusted their duties to account for the young nurse bees’ absence. Some of the older bees remained foragers, while others took up the task of caring for the larvae and nest. ASU News reports that “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 researchers also compared the brains of the improved bees to the brains of the unchanged bees. They discovered a noticeable increase in two key proteins in the improved bees’ brains: Prx6 (which is also found in humans and can help against dementia) and a special “chaperone” protein (which helps protect other proteins from damage during stress).
Although further studies would be required before these results could be generalized to humans, Amdam concludes, “Maybe social interventions – changing how you deal with your surroundings – is something we can do today to help our brains stay younger. [...] 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.”