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article imageWhat honeybees can tell us about Alzheimer’s

By Tim Sandle     Dec 18, 2016 in Science
Linking honeybees to Alzheimer’s disease sounds, first off, like a leap too far. However, scientists have how understanding memory in honeybees could help to combat degenerative brain diseases.
According to Dr Stephanie Biergans from the University of Queensland, Australia, who notes in a research brief: “Honeybees have an amazing capacity to learn and remember.”
With this she notes some remarkable attributes of the bees. For example, honeybees can count up to four; they can also orientate themselves by learning patterns and landmarks. In addition, honeybees are social insects and they can teach other bees. Memory comes into play on several levels, especially in helping bees to recall where specific food sources are.
Biologists have identified that the honeybee can form complex memories via processes similar to what is taking place within human brains. Specifically the process of DNA methylation is one molecular mechanism capable of regulating memory specificity and re-learning. This process could potentially control how experiences are integrated over a lifetime.
The similarities make the honeybee can ideal model for studying the human brain. With memory formation, molecular changes occur which trigger physical changes in the brain. An example is with an alteration to neural connections. The accumulation of these changes creates long-term memory. Notably, memories formed as a result of environmental changes or experiences are slightly different (what are termed 'epigenetic mechanisms'). These types of memories regulate gene expression via modifications to DNA without changing the genes themselves. This means that DNA methylation is an epigenetic process, taking place in the brain and one that is related to memory formation.
From studies with honeybees, the researchers know that if they block the process in bees then bees struggle to recall things like the location of food or of the hive.
The importance of this is because DNA methylation similarly occurs in the human brain it affects to how humans recall many situations. This area represents a potential treatment area with those who are losing their memories through conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. While the basis of many neurodegenerative diseases is genetic, it the interaction with the environment – the epigenetic element – that determines the courses that such diseases take.
The research has been published in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience. The paper is titled “DNA Methylation Adjusts the Specificity of Memories Depending on the Learning Context and Promotes Relearning in Honeybees.”
More about Alzheimer's disease, Neurodegenrative disease, Honeybees
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