What’s all the Buzz about?

Nobody is terribly fond of the idea that as we grow older our mental sharpness tends to wane and for some folks the perils of possible dementia become all too real. Anyone who has ever cared for a dementia stricken loved one can attest to the hardships that ensue such an unfortunate turn of events.  The explanations for the onset of dementia are many, however one particular factor often goes overlooked. The issue at hand is the decrease in social interaction.  It’s not uncommon to see friends or life-partners pass on or family members move away, no matter what the means of withdrawal from social interaction its impact may be pivotal in the decline of our mental acuity.  With that in mind Professor Gro Amdam of the Norwegian Research Council set out to see if she couldn’t shed some light on this issue.

Professor Amdam studies bees and their brain cell function (interestingly enough their brain cells function similarly to our own) and her research has come across some “buzz” worthy results (pun intended) which were published by the Norwegian Research Council and covered by Science Daily’s issue on 3/23/11.   The experiment she carried out had two parts; in part-1 she designed a memory test for bees that were young, old and some who showed signs similar to dementia.  As expected the young bees faired well, the older ones were a bit slower in committing the task to memory and the bees with dementia-like symptoms struggled mightily to complete the task and most failed to ever complete the task.  Part-1 established that the bees with dementia-like symptoms seem to suffer from the same types of problems humans experience when it comes to learning and short-term memory.

Part-2 of her experiment is where things get very interesting and it took some creative thinking to design, I’m sure.   Knowing that young bees tend to the growing larvae inside the nest and that old bees spend their time independently foraging for food outside of the nest, Professor Amdam thought it might be telling to see what would happen if young and old bees switched roles.  By switching their social order the older bees would now tend to the larvae in the nest and receive more social interaction…and the results were pretty amazing.  More than half of the older bees improved their learning and memory abilities simply by having more social interaction.

The likely explanation came from the increased levels of proteins in the brain that are responsible for the repair and maintenance of brain cells (which undoubtedly are key to brain function).  So why is this relevant to us?  Well as mentioned earlier bee brain cells function much like brain cells in humans and several of the proteins that were greatly increased in the bee brains during this study are shared in human brains.

Professor Amdam is now in search of a collaborative effort with scientists who are protein specialists to better understand these proteins of the brain.  They hope to piece together the mechanism(s) to explain this phenomenom.  Ideally there may be enough similarity in human brain proteins to apply what she learns going forward to a means of alleviating dementia-like symptoms in humans.  For more information on similar collaborative efforts in science, research or science-education please visit us at http://massacademysciences.org/.

Written by: Matthew Panechelli

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