Queensland Brain Institute researchers are a step closer to unlocking the mysteries of disorders like schizophrenia and autism – through peering into the brains of bees.
The cascade of molecular changes that take place in honeybees’ brains when they process and learn sensory information has important parallels for human brains, says QBI’s Dr Judith Reinhard.
“Honeybees are a great model system for understanding the functioning of both healthy brains and brain disorders, because many of the underlying processes are similar in insects and humans,” she explains.
Dr Reinhard and her colleague Dr Charles Claudianos have been observing how bees process scents and learn to associate particular odours with sugar rewards.
They have then used cutting-edge molecular techniques to explore the changes that occur within the bees’ brains after odour memories are formed.
“When sensory information is processed, particular changes occur in the expression of the molecules that facilitate communication between neurons,” Dr Reinhard explains.
“We’re now interested in what happens when this molecular communication goes awry, as we suspect is the case with mental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.
“If we can understand how molecular mis-communication in neurons is linked to mental disorder, it may help us find cures for these conditions.”
Dr Reinhard’s work with honeybees is just one aspect of her research in the field of neuroethology – a multidisciplinary branch of neuroscience which explores how the brain translates sensory information into behaviour.
A particular focus within her laboratory is the sense of smell and its role in memory formation and cognitive processes.
“Olfactory memories are extremely salient and, for example, a whiff of perfume you encounter in the street can suddenly trigger recall of a long-forgotten event or person,” she explains.
“Odours also affect decision-making, a fact which is used in department stores and bakeries to manipulate you into buying their goods.”
Beyond serving as a model for human brain function, insects are useful in olfactory research for a range of other reasons, says Dr Reinhard.
“The experimental design is simpler, you get results quickly, and they don’t have mood swings and changes of mind like human subjects,” she says.
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NOTES TO THE EDITOR:
Dr Judith Reinhard’s laboratory conducts research that links brain function to behaviour by investigating how sensory information from the environment is processed in the brain and translated into behavioural activity. A particular focus is the sense of smell and its effect on memory and cognitive performance. Researchers in the Reinhard laboratory combine insect model systems with human research and behavioural studies with physiological and molecular approaches.
Queensland Brain Institute
The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) was established as a research institute of the University of Queensland in 2003. The Institute is now operating out of a new $63 million state-of-the-art facility and houses 26 Principal Investigators with strong international reputations. QBI is one of the largest neuroscience institutes in the world dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying brain function.