A Taste for Learning
Cognitive enhancement in honey bees
Building on the experience gained during her summer scholarship, Gabrielle Lockett is currently undertaking a PhD in the Research School of Biological Sciences. Her research focuses on methods for cognitive enhancement in honey bees. She explains “Bee brains are relatively simple, compared to those in mammals. If we can understand learning and memory processes in bees, then this could pave the way for up scaling the knowledge to complex systems like humans.“ Memory and cognition in bees is also interesting from a perspective of evolution. Insects and mammals have a distant common ancestry and a better understanding of the similarities and differences between cognition in the two groups might lead to insight into how learning and memory evolved.
Even though bees may be some of the most communicative insects, objectively evaluating cognitive processes can be quite difficult and requires careful experimental planning. The technique Gabrielle is currently employing is called the proboscis extension reflex assay. A bee’s antennae are sensitive to both taste and smell. Applying a drop of sugar solution to the antennae will generally cause the bee to extend its proboscis to feed. If the sugar taste is accompanied by a distinctive scent the bee can learn to extend its proboscis in response to the scent alone – a Pavlovian response. Using this technique as an evaluation of the bee’s ability to learn, Gabrielle experiments with different stimulant substances.
She is also looking at the molecular changes that accompany these differences in learning and memory. To do this, she looks at which genes are used (transcribed) more after dosing the bee with the drug, using microarrays. Microarrays are the DNA from over 14,000 honey bee genes spotted onto a microscope slide, to which cRNA from two samples is hybridised. After imaging (photographing) these tiny spots, Gabrielle can see which genes have increased and decreased levels of expression in bees treated with the drug. From this, she will be able to focus on genes that show interesting changes. It’s early days for Gabrielle’s research at present, so no one’s making guesses as to which genes these will be – as always, the only way to know for sure is to do the research.