On ecstasy, octopuses reached out for a hug

Leslie Hanson
September 22, 2018

A new study has found that when octopuses are intoxicated with MDMA, they act like humans who are high on the same drug. If successful, octopuses may become a new laboratory model for the human brain. This allowed the research team to make comparisons between the genes in octopuses and humans.

The idea to test the drug's effect in octopuses came from Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist Gul Dolen.

Octopuses are known for their intelligence.

The genetic analysis of the California two-spot octopus revealed that its brain had the molecular components required to sense MDMA. Dolen said humans on MDMA also touch each other more frequently when on MDMA.

MDMA stokes euphoria in humans in part by increasing levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.

And some of the octopuses would be placed in the tank for the first time after absorbing ecstasy, and others would not. But, serious interest in MDMA has grown as researchers have begun discovering promising applications of the drug in treating PTSD and other disorders.

"They really didn't like it. They looked like they were freaked out", says Dolen. "They were just taking these postures of super hypervigilance".

But lower doses - the sort a person might take - produced a profound change in behavior.


The scientists placed the sea creatures in a solution that contained MDMA and they were provided with three different chambers in a tank to swim in. Put two in the same tank, and they will usually stay far away from one another - or try to kill and eat each other. What sounds like the premise of a children's book set at Burning Man is, in fact, the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology. "At least 500 million years ago, it started doing this function".

The octopus who normally leads an anti-social existence. "A small lobster given serotonin will become a more aggressive, socially dominant lobster".

"Without a test like blocking serotonin and then retesting the effects of MDMA, you can't be sure that this is the mechanism", Bedi said.

"It just shows us how much we don't know and how much there is out there to understand". NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has been diving into this important story.

The "love drug" seemed to be working on the brains of the invertebrates much in the same way it does to human brains.

Scientists gave several female and male octopuses a bath laced with the drug.

Octopus brains are organised totally differently than ours or a rodent's. When "high", the octopuses went straight to the caged solitary male. The behavioural reactions of the animals were similar to humans when they take ecstasy write the authors. However, the MDMA trial group, consisting of four octopuses, showed significantly different behavior.

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