An investigation into cognitive dysfunction in honeybees and bumblebees as models for human neurodegenerative disease

The incidence of neurodegenerative disease is expected to become a major social and economical burden on society as the world’s population ages. There are no animal models that permit an investigation into both higher cognitive function and social interaction. One recently identified model is the use of bee colonies that exist as large (60,000 for honeybees) social communities where decisions are made democratically and bees communicate constantly.

Importantly, most cases of human neurodegenerative disease are idiopathic and some show regional hotspots. For example, Parkinson’s disease shows a higher incidence in rural locations as well as exposure to industrial pesticides ( suggesting a possible role for environmental toxins. In parallel, there are worrying declines in insect pollinators, including bees and work from this laboratory has indicated a role for pesticides in their cognitive dysfunction.

Neuronal dysfunction and cell death is often preceded by mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress and we are investigating these mechanisms in both mammals and bees. This project will use a range of novel approaches to study the neuronal dysfunction in isolated bee neurons cultured in the laboratory to a range of key pesticides as well as human therapeutic compounds known to target the CNS and compare these to the responses from isolated mammalian neurons. Where dysfunction is evident in both, we will characterise the cellular/biochemical mechanism and investigate its impact on bees with respect to learning paradigms and navigation (homing) with the hope of identifying a novel model for cognitive dysfunction. These findings will also be relevant to the current decline in insect pollinators and would particularly suit a student interested in the impact of the environment on human health.

Dr Chris Connolly
Subject Area: 
View all PhD opportunities in Division: