Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Reversing dementia in honeybees

Bees, it seems, hold the promise of reversing dementia. This is not crank science but is  based on a Scientific American guest blog by Kara Rogers. It arises out of the observation of epigenetic phenomena.

 Epigenetics is the study of how nature's protein manufacturers, of which genes are a critical component, are controlled by the environment, both within and outside the cell, and the environment will depend on the mode of interaction which the bee undertakes in performing its role in the  colony.

Neurons are a special  kind of cell and it seems that in a honeybee at least they behave differently in different situations - they change their structure and the way they interact with other neurons according to the role of the bee. As this changes, the neurons and the pattern of neurological activity changes and this is in some way linked to cognitive ability. In bees cognitive ability changes not only with age but with social function. As a bee changes its role in the hive its mental ability changes as it encounters a different social environment and different mental qualities are required.

There are three kinds of occupant in a honeybee nest (all with identical genes):

  • queen

  • worker (sexually immature female) 

  • drone (male, whose sole purpose is to mate)

Focusing in on the workers, they start out in life as  'nurse bees', a stage which lasts a few weeks, looking after the queen, cleaning the nest and building it up.   They then become foragers, searching the surrounding flora for nectar and carrying it to the nest. As time passes the foragers exhibit physical and mental decline. But if the number of foragers grows too high in relation to the nurse population then by some extraordinary means they transform into nurses. Moreover, in the process they become more intelligent - their neurons and the connections between them reconstitute the structure associated with improved cognition, so that the transformed insects can adopt their new role in society.

 To quote Kara Rogers:

As (workers) transition from one role to another their brains change. The mushroom body (a center for olfactory processing) shrinks or expands, the brain proteome transforms, and even the microRNA transcriptome morphs. The complexity is astounding.

  The bee's brain changes its neurological functioning and in effect rewires itself. This could have huge implications on the way dementia is dealt with. At least in this case an organ associated with intelligence responds as its externally determined function changes. Could it be that as people are given different mental tasks they will in certain situations actually generate extra neurons of the right type?

 (My own untested, provisional model  is that the real person is located outside our space-time-energy world in an eternal spiritual dimension, and that the processes we detect in the brain are material manifestations of this greater reality. The universe emerged from this spiritual realm of the Triune God who for some reason created us and our universe, a stage for us to act upon in a battle between good and evil as  we resond to God's love. Forgive my metaphysics. This is not essential to my Chrisitanity but is a way I can rationally visualise God's cosmic scheme.)

I have no formal training in the life sciences but  believe there are other examples of brain plasticity in other organisms and in humans. It certainly looks as though  totally unexpected advances in research and in the treatment of dementia could come from the revolution in epigenetics which is currently underway, a revolution which could have profound implications for our understanding of evolution, the treatment of dementia and the nature of morality. Essentially, epigenetics means that what happens in our own lives is affected by and affects other generations, past and future, and potentially everything in the universe.

 If you don't want to think about these things at least you can look forward to progress in making dementia in you and your elders less likely or even reversing it.

author, 2077:Knights of Peace

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