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University of Arizona researchers unravel mysteries of insect brains

Published: Apr. 29, 2021 at 5:48 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Researchers at the University of Arizona are working to learn more about bugs and their brainpower.

Scientists at the school’s neuroscience department found a new way to measure and compare the brains of invertebrates like bees, wasps, and ants.

University of Arizona Postdoctoral Researcher R. Keating Godfrey said their work has turned up some surprising results.

Godfrey said it is not the size of the brain that determines intelligence, but the number of neurons, and her research has found ants aren’t as smart as expected.

For scale, Godfrey compared a fruit fly to an ant.

Despite the difference in size, the insects have about the same number of neurons.

University of Professor Neuroscience Wulfila Gronenberg said counting neurons in invertebrates used to take years.

“There’s just one study from the 1960s where the person had done that for three bee brains. He was a graduate student and it took him five years for three brains,” Gronenberg said.

Due to the tedious and time-consuming nature of the research, Gronenberg said few people pursued it.

“Who would spend half a career counting neurons for just one insect?” Gronenberg said.

Godfrey and Gronenberg began trying different, faster techniques until they found one that works.

“It takes us just six hours,” Gronenberg said.

Researchers pull out the bug brains and mush them up into a sort of soup.

Godfrey then takes a subset of that “bug brain soup” and places it onto a microscopic slide, which makes it easier to count the number of nuclei.

Now that this team has confirmed the cell counting method works, they can begin their real research into social insects.

“Do the ones that are social have more neurons or fewer neurons? We can test those questions now, which would have taken us 36 years before to test three species,” Godfrey said.

Their research was recently published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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