Scientists Turn Back the Aging Clock on Elderly Bees

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beeResearchers at Arizona State University have discovered a way to reverse brain aging in older honeybees, by giving them the kinds of responsibilities normally handled by much younger bees. The study and subsequent clinical applications may give us a new look at how social intervention and responsibility can bolster drug therapies in the fight against human dementia and brain aging.

Researchers have known for years that as long as bees remain in the nest caring for larvae, they remain alert and mentally competent. However, once those same bees are done nursing babies and set out to gather food, they begin to age quickly. Within two weeks, the bees start losing their abilities to learn new things. In addition to this loss of brain function, the bees take on an older, more haggard appearance, with worn wings and hairless patches on their bodies.

Scientists wondered what would happen if they took those older bees and set them about caring for larvae, again. The results were surprising, even to researchers accustomed to their discoveries yielding startling results. Taking bees that had already finished their duties as caregivers and moved on to foraging, the researchers placed them in a nest with more babies.

And while a few of the older bees ignored the larvae and went back to foraging for food, the majority of them began caring for the young. What’s more, this return to youthful duties incited changes in the molecular structure of the bees’ brains. After a little over a week, more than 50% of the older bees that had returned to caretaking duties showed a significant improvement in brain function and the ability to once again learn new tasks.

One of the most noticeable and significant changes noted during the experiment was a change and increase in certain proteins in the bees’ brains. Among the increased proteins was Prx6 — a protein that can also be found in human brains, and which protects against things like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The next step for the researchers will be to find ways to alter social experiences in mammals – including humans – in order to find out if their brains respond in similar ways.

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