Giving Ecstasy to Octopuses Taught Researchers Something Important About the Brain

Henrietta Strickland
September 23, 2018

The unusual study was conducted by scientists in an attempt to understand the ancient brain mechanisms that control social behaviour in animals.

When humans consume ecstasy, they experience a rush of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin which produces feelings of euphoria - making them more keen to physically connect.

Researchers studied the gene structure of an octopus species not known for being social, and then tried to record its behaviour to the mood-altering drug MDMA, also knows as Ecstacy.

Neuroscientists from John Hopkins University in the USA conducted the study and published it in the journal Current Biology, and say that it reveals something profound about how our brains work.

According to Dr. Dolen's genetic analysis of a species of octopus (called California two-spot octopus), the creature's brain can sense MDMA.

What's more, without the drug, any octopus that approached the stranger at all would remain very reserved, perhaps only reaching out one arm to tentatively touch the other animal's cage. "This is very similar to how humans react to MDMA".

A new study suggests that humans might have more in common with octopuses than it appears: they both respond to at least one psychoactive drug in a similar, sociable way.

To her, the results published in the journal Current Biology show that "serotonin has been encoding social functions for a very, very long time".

When The Beatles recorded the song "Octopus's Garden", they probably imagined a friendly octopus that invited humans to sing and dance around in their underwater garden (in the shade).

"I was absolutely shocked that it had this effect", says Judit Pungor, a neuroscientist at the University of OR who studies octopuses but wasn't part of the research team.

Octopuses, which are often reclusive in nature, are separated from humans by 500 million years of evolution.

Creatures across the whole of the animal kingdom exhibit social behaviours, from invertebrates including ants and bees, through to vertebrates like fish and primates. The results were clear, as the octopuses preferred to spend more time in the cage that contained another octopuses than it did when it was not on MDMA.

Dölen received some typical lighthearted responses from people asking about the experiment: "People are like, 'Have you got any pictures of octopuses holding glow sticks?' which I kind of ignore because that wasn't really our objective".

"It's not just quantitatively more time, but qualitative".

For the MDMA experiment, four male and four female octopuses were exposed to the drug, before being put in the experimental chamber for 30 minutes. When "high", the octopuses went straight to the caged solitary male. Not usually touchy feely creatures, after being given MDMA, the octopuses actually started hugging.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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