Monday, July 6, 2009

How We Spend Our Time May Determine the Decline of Cognitive Abilities, Says Bee Study


When forager bees revert to nursing bee behavior their brains become 'young' again

July 1, 2009 – Cognitive ability declines as people age but a new study has found that honey bees seem to have solved this problem. They have discovered that by switching their social role, aging honey bees can keep their learning ability intact or even improve it.

Maybe the specific kind of daily activities people engage in during the course of their lives influences the extent of their mental decline.

A team of researchers from Technische Universität Berlin, led by Dr. Ricarda Scheiner, are involved in the study of how division of labor among honey bees affects their learning performance as they age. Dr. Sheiner is to present the research today at the Society of Experimental Biology Annual Meeting in Glasgow.

The oldest bees in a colony are the foragers - a task that demands a high amount of energy, the researchers say. With increasing foraging duration, their capacity for associative learning was found to decrease.

On the other hand, no decline was observed in nurse bees that remain inside the hive taking care of the brood and the queen, even though their age was the same as that of their foraging sisters.

When the scientists artificially forced a subset of these foragers to revert to nursing tasks, they discovered that they learning performance improved again, demonstrating a remarkable plasticity in their brain circuits.

"The honey bee is a great model", explains Dr. Scheiner, "because we can learn a lot about social organization from it and because it allows us to revert individuals into a 'younger' stage.

“If we remove all of the nurse bees of a colony, some of the foragers will revert to nursing behavior and their brains become 'young' again. We thus hope to study the mechanisms responsible for age-dependent effects, like oxidative damage, and also to discover new ways to act against these aging processes."

The scientists are planning to use this as a model to study general aging processes in the human brain, and even hope that they may provide some clues on how to prevent these processes.

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