Scientists discover bees can ‘turn back time,’ reverse brain aging

Scientists at Arizona State University have discovered that older honey bees 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 scientific journal Experimental Gerontology, a team of scientists from ASU and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, led by Gro Amdam, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, presented findings that show that tricking older, foraging bees into doing social tasks inside the nest causes changes in the molecular structure of their brains.

Young bees take care of bee babies called larvae. A bee larvae looks somewhat like a croissant, and each baby has her own hexagonal compartment inside the nest of the colony. The young bees patrol the nest and inspect each compartment to clean and feed the larvae. Photo by: Bente Smedal

“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,” said Amdam. “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?”

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. Then, some of the old bees returned to searching for food, while others cared for the nest and larvae.  Researchers discovered that after 10 days, about 50 percent of the older bees caring for the nest and larvae had significantly improved their ability to learn new things.

Amdam’s international team not only saw a recovery in the bees’ ability to learn, they discovered a change in proteins in the bees’ brains. When comparing the brains of the bees that improved relative to those that did not, two proteins noticeably changed. They found Prx6, a protein also found in humans that 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.

In general, researchers are 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 – changing how you deal with your surroundings – is something we can do today to help our brains stay younger,” said 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 suggests further studies are needed on mammals such as rats in order investigate whether the same molecular changes that the bees experience might be socially inducible in people.

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7 thoughts on “Scientists discover bees can ‘turn back time,’ reverse brain aging”

  1. In our thinking capacity, our brain is capable to store the eternal picture of the cosmic world and that is why the brain of mankind may be brain cell the sample of the universe.

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  2. It is interesting to note that bees learn while caring for their young in a bee hive. As long as they don’t have to leave the hive and fly out they are doing OK and their brain chemistry supports learning. Why would bees age so fast on a flying mission? Is it a requirement of a flight, social isolation or a mundane food gathering activity that kills all their creativity and learning? Or is it a stress related to the food gathering mission or a lack of stimulating hive activity (like caring for larvae)? Remember that bees located outside of their favorite environment (shelter) age surprisingly fast.

    • It’s definitely related to the stress associated with flying. A bee will flap it’s wings over 200 times a second, and forage up to 7 miles from the hive. That’s fourteen miles round trip, and they can take up to 30 trips per day if needed. Factor in weather and elements, and a payload up to 85% of a bee’s body weight, not to mention the intense caloric requirements of flying, and you’ve got some hefty wear and tear! Imagine doing that to your car! Once a bee is old enough to be a forager, their lifespan is only 5-30 more days on average. In additional to all that, the scientific reasons for bees needing to be older to forage are somewhat lengthy and complicated. They have certain physiological traits while they are younger that make them better suited to life in the hive. For example, hair quantity (presumably for tactile reasons, hives are dark places!) and specific bodily secretions. Additionally, wing and muscle development is crucial, and they need to actually learn HOW to fly. Once they’re old enough to fly, a bee will spend a LOT of time learning to fly, exercising their wings, and even learning their way around the area. Bees are very good at getting lost if they fly away too early! On top of all that, bees use pheromone signals for nearly everything. Each hive has a distinct smell, which bees use to find their way back to the right hive. Flying to the wrong hive can potentially be fatal. The time in the hive while younger acquaints bees with those smells. There’s a lot more I could talk about, but I hope this is sufficient!

  3. So bee’s are not trapped by aging. Let me repeat that bees are not trapped, bbbeez are not trapped.

    That is all

  4. Does this mean I get to change diapers again? Perhaps my wife could try nursing our infant grandchildren. I thought once I raised my own kids I was done. This study implies otherwise. I hate it when they do that to me!

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