Scientists at Arizona State University have discovered that older honey bees can effectively reverse brain aging when they take on nest responsibilities typically handled by much younger bees. While current research on human age-related dementia focuses on potential new drug treatments, researchers say these findings suggest that social interventions may be used to slow or treat age-related dementia.
In a study published in the journal Experimental Gerontology, a team of scientists showed that tricking older, foraging bees into doing social tasks inside the nest causes changes in the molecular structure of their brains.
The researchers knew from previous work that when bees stay in the nest and take care of larvae — the bee babies — they remain mentally competent for as long as they are there. However, after the bees flew out to gather food, they began aging very quickly. After just two weeks, foraging bees had worn wings, hairless bodies, and lost brain function — basically measured as the ability to learn new things. The scientists wanted to see what would happen if the foraging bees returned to take care of larval babies again.
They discovered that after 10 days, about 50 percent of the returning older bees caring for the nest and larvae had significantly improved their ability to learn new things.
The team not only saw a recovery in the bees’ ability to learn, they discovered a change in the bees’ brains. When comparing the brains of the bees that improved relative to those that did not, two proteins noticeably changed. One was Prx6, a protein also found in humans that can help protect against dementia. Of course, scientists still want to create a drug that could help people maintain brain function. But they’re thinking that social interventions – changing how people deal with their surroundings — are something we can do today to help our brains stay younger. Further studies are needed.