Have honeybees discovered the Fountain of Youth?

17 Jul 2012

It seems that the lowly little honeybee has beat us to it and found the Fountain of Youth. New research at Arizona State University (ASU) has revealed that older honey bees can reverse age-related damage to their brains by resuming caretaking responsibilities usually tasked by younger bees. The study was published in the science journal Experimental Gerontology, and conducted by an international team from ASU and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

In order to discover this amazing result, the team of scientists first had to trick the older bees—who spend most of their time out of the nest foraging—into returning home and doing social tasks.  They found that just this simple change in daily routine led to a big difference in the molecular structure of the bees’ brains.

Previous research had shown that when bees stay in the nest to tend to the larvae, they remain mentally sharp. But as soon as the nursing is over, they leave the hive to collect food. Within just two weeks, these foraging bees are looking much worse for wear. They have worn-out wings, hair loss, and most interestingly, their ability to learn new things (the scientists call this “brain function”) has decreased dramatically.

“We wanted to find out if there was plasticity in this aging pattern”, the lead researcher Gro Amdam said, “so we asked the question, ‘What would happen if we asked the foraging bees to take care of larval babies again?’”

In order to accomplish this, they removed all the younger bees from the larval nursery leaving only the queen and the babies. When the old tired bees that had been out collecting food returned home to this nearly empty house, they divided up the tasks of running the hive amongst themselves. Some resumed foraging for food while others stayed behind to take care of the larvae. After just ten days of work back in the nest, half of these hive-bound older bees showed an improved ability to learn new things.

Even more exciting, the researchers found that proteins in the brain tissues of these bees showed significant chemical changes. Two proteins in particular were noticeably different in the bees that showed learning improvement than in those that did not. Prx6 is a protein that is also found in humans and is known to help protect against dementia and disease such as Alzheimer’s. The other protein they discovered is called a “chaperone” protein, and it serves to protect other proteins from damage due to cell-level stresses.

Since these proteins are also found in humans, the bee research is highly relevant to our own processes of health and aging. In people with age-related dementia and brain changes, treatment has typically focused on using a combination of drugs. The bee findings point to a new direction. “Maybe social interventions – changing how you deal with your surroundings – is something we can do today to help our brains stay younger,” said Amdam.

Further research into why and how these proteins spontaneously respond to specific social experiences may help us to discover the social interventions that can slow or cure our own brain diseases. That result seems as sweet as honey.

What’s your Fountain of Youth?

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