Octopuses given party drugs for science

Leslie Hanson
September 24, 2018

Scientists in the U.S. have just lived that dream. However, octopuses given the drug known as MDMA (or ecstasy, E, Molly or a number of other slang terms) wanted to spend more time close to other octopuses and even hugged them.

He says MDMA, which affects the serotonin system, clearly affects the octopuses' social behavior, but it's not clear to him if it's really inducing greater love for another creature.

"Despite anatomical differences between octopus and the human brain, we've shown that there are molecular similarities in the serotonin transporter gene", Johns Hopkins researcher Gul Dolen said in a statement. Turns out that - similar to its effect on people - the substance makes these sea creatures pretty touchy-feely. The similar effect is observed despite 500+ million years of evolution separating humans and invertebrates like the octopus.

Octopus bimaculoides - the California two-spot octopus - lives mostly alone in caves off the southern Californian coast.

Serotonin makes people more sociable. Special attention was paid to serotonin, significantly affecting mood.

MDMA is known for being a "happy" drug, increasing feelings of euphoria, as well as boosting one's feelings of empathy, and wanting to connect with others. Dolen said humans on MDMA also touch each other more frequently when on MDMA. The researchers ran two experiments.

Prof Dolen designed an experiment with three connected water chambers: one empty, one with a plastic action figure under a cage and one with a female or male laboratory-bred octopus under a cage. When "high", the octopuses went straight to the caged solitary male.

Without being drugged, all the octopuses, male and female, were interested in socialising with female octopuses, but not male ones. "They were just taking these postures of super hypervigilance".

Fascinatingly, while sober, the octopus spent more time with the object, but when it was given a mild dose with MDMA, it favored the other octopus. And they made a lot of physical contact. They spent more time with the male octopuses on the other side of the tank.

"They tended to hug the cage and put their mouth parts on the cage", said the study's lead investigator, Dr. Gül Dölen.

As a result of testing of the drug revealed the similarity of the biochemical basis of this marine life and humans, which is very unusual for these non-native organisms. The research could help us better understand that our brain and social behavior are influenced by more basic processes than we imagined.

Prof Dolen cautions the results are preliminary and need to be replicated and affirmed in further experiments before octopuses might be used as models for brain research. That was apparently too much, as the octopuses appeared hyper-vigilant and stared.

The researchers started out with high doses of the drug, just to see if it had any effect on octopuses at all.

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