Researchers at Arizona State University have successfully reversed brain aging in honeybees, by giving them responsibilities that are typically handled by much younger members of the hive. The change in occupation appeared to trigger a series of youth-restoring chemical processes in the bees' brain —processes that the researchers predict could lead to similar interventions in humans.
The fascinating experiment was led by associate professor Gro Amdam whose team wondered what would happen to older, end-of-the-road honeybees if they were given the responsibility of tending for baby bees in the hive's nursery. To conduct the experiment, researchers from ASU and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences cleared all the bees out of the hive except for the queen and the old-timers.
What happened next was nothing short of remarkable. Not only did the older bees tend to the young, but they did so very competently. This was particularly amazing, because the bees were already showing signs of age-related decline. They were former foragers, battle-hardened from their weeks of work (bees live for about a month.) They had worn wings and hairless bodies. And most importantly, they were experiencing cognitive decline.
The researchers suspected that the restored vitality was more than just a renewed sense of purpose — they thought that something must be going on in the brain. To that end, the scientists hit the lab and performed tests on the bees. What they found was that two different kinds of proteins had noticeably changed, and that this change only occurred in the elderly bees who were given the new jobs.
Specifically, they found a change to prx6 — a protein that is believed to protect humans from dementia. They also found a change to the "chaperone" protein, which protects other proteins from being damaged when the brain is exposed to cell-level stress. Because of the close association to human cognition, the researchers speculate that these insights could assist in the development of interventions for such things as Alzheimer's.
The study also suggests that cognitive decline may be staved off, and even reversed, by altering the social behaviors of elderly humans as well. Perhaps older people who are experiencing cognitive decline should be given some fairly serious responsibilities. It's unlikely that this will have the same effect on humans as it does with the honeybees, but even a tiny bit of renewed neural vitality would be welcome. Moreover, once real interventions for cognitive decline are finally developed, they will likely have to work in tandem with rehabilitation efforts as well.
The entire study can be found here.
Top photograph by Ed Phillips via Shutterstock.com. Inset image courtesy Bente Smedal.