Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or other forms of cognitive decline? It all goes beyond this ant - which is up to 140 days old in the lab.
Scientists studied ants that belong to the species Pheidole dentata properly. They focused on the workers in the ant colony. These workers take care of larvae and collect food. They do the latter collectively and thereby let themselves be guided by pheromones (signal molecules that are left behind by peers).
The researchers were particularly curious about the way the brain of the ants developed throughout their lives. They did have ideas about this prior to the investigation. "We knew that at the start of their lives, workers are not very good at their duties, but then they learn that behavior and get better," says researcher James Traniello. “So we expected that we would see the ants start to function better, peak and then decay. Just as it happens with people: our hearing is deteriorating, we see less well, our motor skills are deteriorating, our memory is getting worse and we eventually die. So I thought we would see the same with ants. "
This ant provides a larva. Image: Boston University.
But that turned out not to be the case at all. As the ants grew older, they only became better at some tasks. For example in following traces of pheromones. Ants also became more active as they grew older.
The research raises a lot of questions. Because why doesn't the ant's brain grow old? "We have talked a lot about that," says researcher Ysabel Giraldo. Perhaps the brains of the ants are more efficient and springier, because the ants are part of an advanced social organization. It may also have to do with the fact that the workers do not reproduce or because they live in an environment with little oxygen. "The answer is not easy." Another interesting question is why the ants eventually - despite not aging - die anyway. And are there circumstances that can cause the ant's brain to age?
The researchers hope that their study can be of significance in the future for a completely different species that does have aging: humans. "I don't want to claim that the brains of ants are similar to those of humans, because they are of course very different," says Giraldo. "By looking at social insects we can perhaps learn something about how social interactions shape behavior and neurobiology."