Bees can become mentally young again with just a few simple alterations to their otherwise fixed routines. Because the brains of bees are surprisingly like our own, this trick could help fight dementia and keep human minds young and flexible.
Norwegian researcher Gro Amdam had groups of older bees take part in learning and memory tests. The bees were challenged to associate a particular scent with a particular reward, and then be able to remember that association later on. Most of the older bees were able to make the connection, but more slowly than their younger counterparts, and those bees that had symptoms equivalent to human dementia were unable to make the connection at all, suggesting their short-term memory and ability to learn were both in sharp decline.
Here's where it gets interesting. Bee hives have a fairly strict social structure - the older bees leave the hive to collect food, while the younger bees remain inside and care for larvae. Amdam flipped this by creating a hive where the older bees were again in charge of larvae. This simple alteration caused an instant surge in the older bees' cognitive abilities, with half of the bees showing marked improvement in their learning and memory.
Even better, Amdam has been able to zero in on the physical alterations engendered by this social change. She discovered that eight different proteins associated with growth, repair, and maintenance of the brain cells had undergone massive with growth, with some reaching levels twice that of normal. Many of these proteins have direct human equivalents, which raises the distinct possibility that similar results could be produced in humans.
"This is evidence of a certain flexibility in the bee brain, and it is conceivable that the brains of other animals and humans could have a similar potential. If so, the question is whether we would be able to figure out how to tap into this flexibility. Another approach would be to try to figure out how the relevant bee proteins work, and then create substances that trigger similar effects."