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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 5

Changing Social Roles Can Reverse Aging

Old bees that start caring for young ones gain cognitive power



SEAN JUSTICE Getty Images

How many mothers have looked at their children and thought, “Ah, they keep me young”? Now we know how right they are.

Caring for the young may delay—and in some cases, even reverse—multiple negative effects of aging in the brain. Gro Amdam, who studies aging in bees at Arizona State University, observed tremendous improvements in cognition among older bees that turn their attention back to nursing. She has reason to believe that changes in social behavior could shave years off the human brain as well.

When bees age, their duties switch from taking care of the brood to foraging outside the hive. The transition is followed by a swift physical and cognitive decline. Amdam removed young bees from their hives, which tricked the older bees into returning to their caretaker posts. Then she tested their ability to learn new tasks. A majority reverted to their former cognitive prowess, according to results published in the journal Experimental Gerontology. “What we saw was the complete reversal of the dementia in these bees. They were performing exactly as well as young bees,” Amdam says.

The ones that improved had higher levels of the antioxidant PRX6 in their brain, a protein that exists in humans and is thought to protect against neurodegenerative diseases. Amdam's theory is that when older individuals participate in tasks typically handled by a younger generation—whether in a hive or in our own society—antioxidant levels increase in the brain and turn back the clock. Youth, it turns out, may be infectious after all.

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