Common Scents - Honeybees guide neurological discoveries

5 Feb 2010

Every moment of every day the brain is forced to process thousands of separate odorants from the world around us.

Through the study of honeybees, scientists at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) have discovered the brain has an advanced ability to isolate specific odours and recollect smells.

“There’s a lot of information coming into the brain whenever a scent is detected and it would be difficult to process it all. We’ve found that honeybees pick only a handful of so-called ‘key odorants’ out of every complex aroma that they really learn. They may remember just two or three odorants from a couple of hundred – the rest are ignored,” lead researcher Dr Judith Reinhard said.

“If you had to learn the hundreds of compounds your brain would be overwhelmed with information. By choosing the key odorants, you can function more effectively without being swamped,” added fellow researcher Dr Charles Claudianos.

The research, published in the latest edition of PLoS ONE, has also allowed the scientists to explore how the learning of odours affects molecules that have been linked to autism and schizophrenia. During their studies, the researchers found that the honeybee brain
responds to sensory experience.

Dr Claudianos explained: “The honeybee brain – like the human brain – adapts to its sensory environment by adjusting the expression of these molecules.”

And the findings could also have an enormous impact on Australian farming. Using the honeybee’s capacity to extract key odorants, scientists will be able to isolate these odorants from the complex aromas of crops. They can then use the key odorants to train honeybees to pollinate specific crops.

“Farmers often have problems making honeybees focus on the crop – the bees go astray and go to nearby forests or national parks and the farmers don’t get a good yield,” Dr Reinhard said.

“If we know the key odorants of the almond aroma, for example, we could use these to train the honeybees in the hive to focus only on pollinating almonds. Then you’d have a much higher likelihood the honeybees would stay in the crop and pollinate it.

Now the focus for the QBI scientists will be whether humans use the same technique of learning specific key odorants so our brain is not overwhelmed by too much sensory information – early research suggests we do.


Media Contact:
Anna Bednarek
Communications Manager
Phone: +61 7 3346 6414

Notes to the Editor
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. The QBI is one of the largest neuroscience institutes in the world dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying brain function.

Dr Charles Claudianos obtained his PhD degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the Australian National University.  He went on to study malaria development at Imperial College, London, before returning to the Australian National University in 2002 where he worked on the mosquito and honeybee genome projects.  Dr Claudianos established a ‘Sensory Neuroscience’ laboratory at the Queensland Brain Institute in 2007.

Dr Reinhard obtained her PhD degree from the University of Bayreuth, Germany, before continuing her research as DAAD-funded postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO Entomology in Canberra, Australia, and as DFG Research Fellow at CNRS Neurobiology in Marseille, France. In 2002, Dr Reinhard she began work on honeybee vision, olfaction and cognition at the Australian National University in Canberra, from where she was recruited to the Queensland Brain Institute.