A newly released report suggests that bees may have the ability to slow down the aging process, possibly providing them with additional time to collect food and protect hives.
The study, published in the scientific journal Experimental Gerontology, finds that bees have developed the ability to reverse the aging process when it comes to memory.
“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,” says Gro Amdam, an associate professor in Arizona State University’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?”
Experiments conducted removed younger nurse bees from the hive, leaving only the queen and babies. When older bees returned to the nest, activity diminished for several days, but researchers later 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 functions.
In other words, older honeybees turned back the clock on brain aging when they took on new duties, such as caring for baby bees, that were usually handled by younger members of the colony. The team of ASU researcher said the ability to adapt likely was the result of a change in proteins in the bees’ brains. When comparing the brains of the bees that improved relative to those that did not, two proteins noticeably changed.
The study’s most significant finding is that social relationships can heal older brains, said researchers. A similar possibility has been suspected in humans, she said, though never proved to date. Such research would be difficult and would present ethical challenges.
The study is the latest to examine how honeybee brains are wired. In late 2010 it was shown that bees can solve complex mathematical problems which keep computers busy for days.
“Studying how bee brains solve such challenging tasks might allow us to identify the minimal neural circuitry required for complex problem solving,” researchers said at the time.
Researchers have also show that bee brains are divided into two halves with different functions in a way that is reminiscent of the hemispheres of the human brain. The results of the experiment suggest that the right antenna and the associated brain structures form the basis for a short-term and relatively temporary memory, while the left antenna supports long-term learning, indicating that bee brains may be more advanced than previously imagined.
It remains unclear whether the research has the ability to translate to further research related to mammalian brain activity. More research is needed on mammals, such as rats, to understand whether the changes observed in bees might apply to humans, said researchers. Researchers said that in the meantime, people should do their best to keep their brain and bodies active as they age because doing so tends to naturally increase maintain levels of the enzyme that decreases with aging.
“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.”
The study was sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, Pew Charitable Trusts and the Research Council of Norway.