Thursday, July 5, 2012

Clues about reversing brain ageing found in bees

Our brain is what makes us human, and capable of doing all kinds of things that other animals cannot. Sadly, our most precious possession starts deteriorating relatively early in life. Therefore, it is not surprising that scientists look for ways to reverse brain ageing, which could prove to be beneficial for patients suffering from all kinds of dementia. New clues that may help us artificially reduce brain ageing have been found in bees, which indeed sounds rather surprising. The findings, from Arizona State University seem to be relevant for humans, and may help us develop brain treatments.

Brain age
Bees basically have two jobs to do during their life: taking care of larvae and flying out to gather food. During the first period of their life, they take care of the unborn and keep their brain function largely intact. When the time comes to fly out of the hive and gather food, they suddenly start ageing much faster, as observed by deterioration of the wings and loss of hair in under two weeks. Additionally, they lose their brain function fast, rendering the bee an interesting animal to study ageing.

Because flying out is associated with faster brain decline, the scientists wondered about what happened if these bees were put back in conditions where they had to take care of larvae. When the bees that had previously been foraging were forced to do their nursing job again, their capabilities of learning new things increased significantly when compared to the bees that kept doing their old job of getting food.

Not only did the scientists observe improvements on a functional level, the changes were also visible when looking at the biological level. The brains of bees that were put back into nursing mode had a marked increase in the level of a protein called Prx6. Interestingly, this protein was previously associated with human patients suffering from dementia; upping the level of Prx6 is hypothesized to reduce their impairment. The scientists also found higher levels of a second protein in bee brains; it involves a so-called chaperone protein, that protects other proteins from damage. Therefore, it is effectively keeping cellular structures and functions intact.

The present study teaches us a few things. First of all, that bees are an interesting animal to study when it comes to brain ageing, despite only having a tiny brain. Secondly, it shows that intervention with medicine might help reduce brain ageing, while previous studies already revealed that music and making more use of your brain can help preserve it. Additionally, a change of scenery might be worthwhile in an effort to slow down the ageing process: it happens to work for bees.
A bee gathering food; this one probably gets old fast.

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