Robrt L. Pela

The incredible lightness of bee-ing

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Photo courtesy of ASU

Here’s some good news for those of us trying to stall the aging process: Scientists at Arizona State University have recently discovered that geriatric honey bees have reversed their own brain aging by taking on hive-related chores typically given to young bees.

What does it mean for those of us who happen not to be yellow-and-black-striped insects? Mostly that staying home is good for us, and that doing more, not less, work when we’re old can slow the progress of age-related dementia.

The ASU scientists haven’t weighed in on where we’re going to find the energy at the age of 85 to mow our own lawns or scrub the kitchen floor, but they do know this: tricking old bees into doing social tasks inside a beehive causes changes in the molecular structure of their brains.

The study, published in the scientific journal, Experimental Gerontology, counters most current research on human age-related dementias, which focus on potential new drug treatments. The team from ASU’s School of Life Sciences worked in tandem with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences to discover that the bees that stayed hive-bound remained mentally competent for as long as they were observed. Conversely, bees who went out into the world each day to gather food, pollinate flowers and frighten people tended to live only about two weeks. These movers and shakers showed lower brain function than the stay-at-home drones, which remained vital and teenaged-acting for the duration of each study.

Apparently, the stay-at-home parents have the upper edge on those racing into the workforce each day. The ASU team discovered that, after 10 days, about half the older bees caring for the hive’s babies had significantly improved their ability to learn new things. What’s more, the researchers discovered a change in proteins in the bees’ brains, most notably, in a protein also found in humans that can help protect against dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other human-brain proteins that protect brain tissue from cell-level stress.

If the good news is that maintaining an active life can stave off dementias in old people, the bad news is that researchers estimate that it will take more than 30 years to turn all this research into a drug that could help people maintain the same healthy brain function without having to babysit their great-grandchildren a couple hours a day.

Bummer.

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