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Study reveals links between bee brains and human brains

Wednesday 26 February 2020 3:07pm

Paul Szyszka catches honey bees from the bee hive at the roof of the Zoology Department image 2020
Paul Szyszka catches honey bees from the bee hive at the roof of the Zoology Department. Credit: University of Otago.

In a discovery which could open new avenues for understanding of the brain, researchers have found similarities between the brain activity of honey bees and humans.

Harnessed honey bees feed on sucrose solution from a pipette image 2020
Harnessed honey bees feed on sucrose solution from a pipette. Credit: University of Otago.

The research revealed that alpha oscillations in bees (the wave-like electrical activity brains generate) have similar properties as in our human brains.

Paul Szyszka, Lecturer in the University of Otago’s Department of Zoology, says “as alpha oscillations are associated with brain functions such as; attention, memory, and consciousness, bee brains may provide new avenues to understanding how our own brains work.”

“Experiments on humans are expensive, logistically difficult, and time consuming. Moreover, recordings from individual identified neurons are not possible in human brains. By studying the brains of bees we can overcome these limitations and apply that knowledge to research, and eventually perhaps even to treatment, of human brains.”

Szyszka, who collaborated with Dr Tzvetan Popov of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, intends to extend the understanding of this fundamental research at the University of Otago.

Paul Szyszka in front of the electrophysiological setup image 2020
Paul Szyszka in front of the electrophysiological setup for recordings brain waves in the honey bee brain. Credit: University of Otago.

The study involved regular honey bees from outdoor hives. In the laboratory they were stimulated with odours, with microscopic electrodes recording their brain activity.

“It is fascinating to see how bees can learn to associate odours with food in a similar way to humans. What we want to do now is examine how these alpha oscillations change in different situations. As a neuroethologist, I’m interested in how bees’ alpha oscillations change during natural behaviours, for example when a bee forages or sleeps,” Szyszka says.

Szyszka is now in search of students looking to master in Zoology or Neuroscience in a project to further examine the relationship between brain waves and learning and memory.

The research has been published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rspb.2020.0115

For more information contact:

Paul Szyszka
Department of Zoology Lecturer
University of Otago
Tel +64 347 979 61
Email paul.szyszka@otago.ac.nz

Mark Hathaway
Senior Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 279 5016
Email mark.hathaway@otago.ac.nz