Bees appear to be able to reverse the effects of ageing on their brains, simply by returning home for a little light housework.
When older bees take on the nest responsibilities typically handled by much younger bees, the molecular structure of their brains is altered - suggesting that, just possibly, social interventions could slow or treat age-related dementia in human beings.
"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," says Gro Amdam of Arizona State University.
"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. We wanted to find out if there was plasticity in this aging pattern so we asked the question, ‘What would happen if we asked the foraging bees to take care of larval babies again?"
The team 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 diminished for several days. Then, some of the old bees returned to searching for food, while others cared for the nest and larvae.
And, found the researchers, after 10 days, about half the older bees caring for the nest and larvae had significantly improved their ability to learn new things.
Not only was there a recovery in the bees’ ability to learn, there was a change in proteins in the bees’ brains. Notably, the team found Prx6 - a protein also found in humans that can help protect against dementia, including diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
They also found a 'chaperone' protein that protects other proteins from being damaged when 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," says 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."
Amdam now wants to carry out further studies on mammals such as rats to find out whether it might be possible to induce the same molecular changes in people - by forcing them to do housework and childcare, perhaps?