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Having more nerve cells in the brain is ‘the bees knees’ Queen Mary University discovers

PUBLISHED: 10:46 04 October 2017 | UPDATED: 10:46 04 October 2017

The bee that came to tea... Queen Mary study trains bumblebees with sugar water rewards. Picture: Clint Perry

The bee that came to tea... Queen Mary study trains bumblebees with sugar water rewards. Picture: Clint Perry

Clint Perry

Bumblebees may be able to tell us why some people are smarter than others, according to researchers at east London’s Queen Mary University.

Bee tapping into different colour panels in Queen Mary University study to learn where sugar water rewards are. Picture: Clint Perry Bee tapping into different colour panels in Queen Mary University study to learn where sugar water rewards are. Picture: Clint Perry

A study at the Mile End campus has examined the brains of bees trained to do different tasks, showing the number of connections between nerve cells which may hold the answer to questions about individual abilities.

Bees with a greater density of nerve connections in a specific part of their brains had better memories and learned faster than bees with fewer connections.

PhD student Li Li and her team trained bumblebees to discriminate between 10 differently coloured artificial flowers, with five containing sugar water rewards and five containing bitter quinine solution.

“We have shown for the first time that visual learning can increase the density of nerve connections in this area of the brain,” Li Li explains. “An enriched environment where bees are exposed to many colours without learning anything from them can also affect the synaptic organisation in the brain.”

Previous Queen Mary University study in 2016 when bumblebees were 'tagged' to find out where they buzz off to every day. Picture: Joseph Woodgate Previous Queen Mary University study in 2016 when bumblebees were 'tagged' to find out where they buzz off to every day. Picture: Joseph Woodgate

They tested the bees two days later on how well they remembered which colours were rewarding, using confocal microscopy imaging technique at areas known to be responsible for visual learning and memory.

The bees with a higher density of synaptic complexes had a better memory for the colours.

Additional experiments showed bees that learned faster, shown by taking fewer landings to find the right flowers, also had a higher density of synaptic complexes in the brain.

Li Li’s colleague Clint Perry said: “Our results should provide new avenues for understanding cognition in all animals, including humans. They suggest a link between the number of connections in the brain and how well an individual does on a task with memory and learning.”

The researchers also found that bees trained with artificial flowers of many colours had greater densities of nerve connections than bees that trained among uncoloured flowers.

The researchers hope their results, which have just been published in today’s Proceedings of the Royal Society journal, prompt further investigations into the potential link between nerve connections in the brain and individual differences in learning and memory.

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