Norwegian researcher Gro Amdam has succeeded in reversing the aging process in the bee brain -- findings which she believes may bring hope to people with dementia.
"No one really believes that the fountain of youth exists," says Professor Amdam. "We accept that as we age, our health and mental acuity will decline. But recent findings indicate that aging doesn't have to be synonymous with going downhill."
Professor Amdam's research subjects are bees, the workings of whose brain cells are surprisingly similar to ours, she explains. So when she finds the secrets behind what makes a bee brain tick, the knowledge may well apply to humans, too.
New tasks had positive effect
In addition to her professorship at Arizona State University in the US, Professor Amdam also does part-time research at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås, Norway. Until 2010 her research on brain function in bees was partly funded by a grant under the Research Council's National Programme for Research in Functional Genomics in Norway (FUGE).
Together with her research group, Professor Amdam has studied the performance of older bees on learning and memory tests. Her bee subjects underwent a laboratory learning test in which they were challenged to combine an impression (a scent) with a reward -- and to remember that relationship later.
The results indicate that bees that learn well understand the relationship immediately, just as children learn to behave nicely when promised a reward of chocolate cake. While the older bees make the connection less quickly than younger ones, the bees with symptoms similar to dementia either never understand the relationship or they forget it at once.
"These bee problems are similar to what we see in old people: both short-term memory and the ability to learn decline," the professor summarises.
By changing the social order of the bee community, however, the researchers came upon findings that are generating buzz in the research world. The division of labour among bees is usually such that older bees collect food outside the hive, while younger bees tend to the larvae. When the older bees were placed to do the younger bees' tasks, half of them improved in their learning and memory abilities.
Proteins for flexible brains
"Research on older people shows that social stimulation can have positive effects on health and brain functioning," says Professor Amdam. "Bees appear to reflect some of this as well."
The brain's proteins may play a key role. When the researchers analysed the brains of bees that improved versus those that did not improve, large differences were found in the levels of eight proteins involved in the growth, repair and maintenance of brain cells. Several of these proteins are also found in humans.
In the bees whose learning had improved, the levels of two of these proteins were twice as high as in the other bees. Bee brains with these high protein levels simply seem better at repairing damage and ensuring that processes function as they should.
"This is evidence of a certain flexibility in the bee brain, and it is conceivable that the brains of other animals and humans could have a similar potential. If so, the question is whether we would be able to figure out how to tap into this flexibility. Another approach would be to try to figure out how the relevant bee proteins work, and then create substances that trigger similar effects."
Collaboration with protein experts
Now Professor Amdam is planning how to take these findings a step further.
"I need other researchers as sparring partners in order to figure out the best way to continue from here. New research will definitely involve new partners, including experts in proteins of the type we have found. It will be exciting to take our 10 years of basic research to the next level and see where it leads us."
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