Scientists at Arizona State University have discovered older honey bees effectively reverse brain ageing when they take on nest responsibilities typically handled by much younger bees.
While research on human age-related dementia focuses on potential new drug treatments, researchers say these findings suggest social interventions may be used to slow or treat age-related dementia.
In a study published in the scientific journal Experimental Gerontology, a team of scientists from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences presented findings that show tricking older, foraging bees into doing social tasks inside the nest causes changes in the molecular structure of their brains.
“We knew from previous research 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,” Gro Amdam, an associate professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, said in a statement.
"However, after a period of nursing, bees fly out gathering food and begin ageing 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,” he said.
According to Professor Amdam, they wanted to find out if there was plasticity in this ageing pattern.
During experiments, 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 diminished for several days.
Some of the old bees then returned to searching for food, while others cared for the nest and larvae. Researchers discovered that after 10 days about 50% of the older bees caring for the nest and larvae had significantly improved their ability to learn new things.
When comparing the brains of the bees that improved, relative to those that did not, two proteins noticeably changed.
Researchers found Prx6, a protein also found in humans can help protect against dementia – including diseases such as Alzheimer's – and they discovered a second and documented "chaperone" protein that protects other proteins from being damaged when brain or other tissues are exposed to cell-level stress.
Researchers are now interested in creating a drug that could help people maintain brain function, yet they may be facing up to 30 years of basic research and trials.
“Maybe social interventions such as changing how you deal with your surroundings, is something we can do today to help our brains stay younger," Professor Amdam suggested.