Tag: neurobiology

Honey Bees Can Understand Nothing

Zero, zilch, nothing, is a pretty hard concept to understand. Children generally can’t grasp it until kindergarten. And it’s a concept that may not be innate but rather learned through culture and education.

Throughout human history, civilizations have had varying representations for it. Yet our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, can understand it.

And now researchers in Australia writing in the journal Science say the humble honey bee can be taught to understand that zero is less than one.

The result is kind of astounding, considering how tiny bee brains are. Humans have around 100 billion neurons. The bee brain? Fewer than 1 million.

The findings suggest that the ability to fathom zero may be more widespread than previously thought in the animal kingdom — something that evolved long ago and in more branches of life.

It’s also possible that in deconstructing how the bees compute numbers, we could make better, more efficient computers one day.

Our computers are electricity-guzzling machines. The bee, however, “is doing fairly high-level cognitive tasks with a tiny drop of nectar,” says Adrian Dyer, a Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology researcher and co-author on the study.

Their brains are probably processing information in a very clever [i.e., efficient] way.”

But before we can deconstruct the bee brain, we need to know that it can do the complex math in the first place.

How to teach a bee the concept of zero

Bees are fantastic learners. They spend hours foraging for nectar in among flowers, can remember where the juiciest flowers are, and even have a form of communication to inform their hive mates of where food is to be found.

Researchers train bees like they train many animals: with food. “You have a drop of sucrose associated with a color or a shape, and they will learn to reliably go back to” that color or shape, Dyer explains.

With this simple process, you can start teaching bees rules. In this case, the researchers wanted to teach 10 bees the basic rules of arithmetic.

So they put out a series of sheets of paper that had differing numbers of objects printed on them. Using sugar as a reward, the researchers taught the bees to always fly to the sheet that had the fewest objects printed on it.

Once the bees learned this rule, they could reliably figure out that two shapes are less than four shapes, that one shape is smaller than three. And they’d keep doing this even when a sugary reward was not waiting for them.

And then came the challenge: What happens when a sheet with no objects at all was presented to the bees? Would they understand that a blank sheet — which represented the concept of zero in this experiment — was less than three, less than one?

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Growing Human Brain Cells In The Lab

When researchers like Gan find potential new drugs, they must be tested on human cells to confirm they can benefit patients. Historically, these tests have been conducted in cancer cells, which often don’t match the biology of human brain cells.

The problem is that brain cells from actual people can’t survive in a dish, so we need to engineer human cells in the lab,” explained Gan, senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes. “But, that’s not as simple as it may sound.”

Many scientists use induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to address this issue. IPSCs are made by reprogramming skin cells to become stem cells, which can then be transformed into any type of cell in the body.

Gan uses iPSCs to produce brain cells, such as neurons or glial cells, because they are relevant to neurodegenerative disease.

Human brain cells derived from iPSCs offer great potential for drug screening. Yet, the process for producing them can be complicated, expensive, and highly variable.

Many of the current methods produce cells that are heterogeneous, or different from one another, and this can lead to inconsistent results in drug screening.

In addition, producing a large number of cells is very costly, so it’s difficult to scale up for big experiments.

To overcome these constraints, Michael Ward, MD, PhD, had an idea.

A New Technique Is Born

I came across a new method to produce iPSCs that was developed at Stanford,” said Ward, a former postdoctoral scholar in Gan’s lab who is now an investigator at the National Institutes of Health.

I thought that if we could find a way to simplify and better control that approach, we might be able to improve the way we engineer human brain cells in the lab.”

Ward and his colleague Chao Wang, PhD, discovered a way to manipulate the genetic makeup of cells to produce thousands of neurons from a single iPSC. This meant that every engineered brain cell was now identical.

The team further improved the technique to create a simplified, two-step process. This allows scientists to precisely control how many brain cells they produce and makes it easier to replicate their results from one experiment to the next.

Their technique also greatly accelerates the process.

While it would normally take several months to produce brain cells, Gan and her team can now engineer large quantities of them within 1 or 2 weeks, and have functionally active neurons within 1 month.

The researchers realized this new approach had tremendous potential to screen drugs and to study disease mechanisms. To prove it, they tested it on their own research.

They applied their technique to produce human neurons by using iPSCs. Then, they developed a drug discovery platform and screened 1,280 compounds.

Their goal is to identify the compounds that could lower levels of the protein tau in the brain, which is considered one of the most promising approaches in Alzheimer’s research and could potentially lead to new drugs to treat the disease.

A Powerful Tool for the Entire Scientific Community

We have developed a cost-effective technology to produce large quantities of human brain cells in two simple steps,” summarized Gan.

By surmounting major challenges in human neuron-based drug discovery, we believe this technique will be adopted widely in both basic science and industry.

Word of this useful new technology has already spread, and people from different scientific sectors have come knocking on Gan’s door to learn about it.

Her team has shared the new method with scores of academic colleagues, some of whom had no experience with cell culture.

So far, they all successfully repeated the two-step process to produce their own cells and facilitate scientific discoveries.

Details of this new technique were also published on October 10, 2017, in the scientific journal Stem Cell Reports.

With some of the roadblocks out of the way, Gan hopes more discoveries will soon help the millions who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

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