How Honeybees Can Help Treat Dementia

How Honeybees Can Help Treat Dementia

Written by Alex Reid
Posted July 11, 2012

Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can trick an old bee into learning new tasks.

Scientists from Arizona State University and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences have discovered that tricking older, foraging bees into doing social tasks— typically handled by much younger bees— inside the nest effectively reverses brain aging, reports ScienceDaily.

This discovery, published in the scientific journal Experimental Gerontology, suggests that social interventions may be used to slow or treat age-related dementia in humans, in addition to new drug treatments.

"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, lead researcher and 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.”

Wanting to find out if there was plasticity in this aging pattern, researchers asked, "What would happen if we asked the foraging bees to take care of larval babies again?"

To answer this, 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 dwindled for several days.

While some of the older bees left the nest to search for food, others cared for the nest and larvae. After 10 days, approximately 50 percent of the older bees caring for the nest had significantly improved their ability to learn new things.

The bees’ ability to learn was not the only factor that was affected. Scientists also discovered a noticeable change in two proteins in their brains.

One of which is Prx6, a protein also found in humans that can help protect against dementia, including Alzheimer's.

The second is a documented "chaperone" protein that protects other proteins from being damaged when the brain or other tissues are exposed to cell-level stress.

"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."

While further studies need to be completed on mammals, this study is a step in the right direction for creating a drug that could help people maintain brain function.

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