Researchers have discovered that older honey bees reverse their brain aging process when they take on responsibilities typically handled by much younger bees.
The researchers note that humans may be able to learn something from the bees, using social interventions — rather than new drugs — to slow or treat age-related dementia.
In a study published in the journal Experimental Gerontology, a team of scientists from Arizona State University and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences reported that tricking older, foraging bees into doing social tasks inside the nest causes changes in the molecular structure of their brains.
“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, Ph.D., an associate professor who led the study.
“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?”
During experiments, scientists removed all of the younger nurse bees from the nest, leaving only the queen and babies. When the older, foraging bees returned to the nest, activity diminished for several days.
Then, some of the old bees returned to searching for food, while others cared for the nest and larvae. Researchers discovered 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 research team not only saw a recovery in the bees’ ability to learn, they discovered a change in proteins in the bees’ brains. When comparing the brains of the bees that improved and those that did not, two proteins noticeably changed.
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 “chaperone” protein that protects other proteins from being damaged when brain or other tissues are exposed to cell-level stress.
The researchers note that efforts to create new drugs to help people maintain brain function could take up to 30 years of basic research and trials.
“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.”
Amdam suggests further studies are needed on mammals such as rats to investigate whether the same molecular changes that the bees experience might occur in people as well.
Source: Arizona State University