Octopus on ecstasy behaves the same as human, reveals secret genetic link

Laverne Higgins
September 22, 2018

Prof Dolen said the experiments suggest that the brain circuits guiding social behaviour in octopuses are present in normal conditions, but may be suppressed by natural or other circumstances.

Each of those four octopuses tended to spend more time in the chamber where a male octopus was caged, as opposed to the other two chambers.

Creatures across the whole of the animal kingdom exhibit social behaviours, from invertebrates including ants and bees, through to vertebrates like fish and primates.

Research shows that even though these animals were separated from humans 500 million years ago, octopuses experience similar effects of the drug. We tend to enjoy our solitude and inhibitions, occasionally shedding them in pursuit of the opposite gender. "This is very similar to how humans react to MDMA; they touch each other frequently".

The research, which was led by Dr. Gül Dölen of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is groundbreaking and also pretty odd. Dölen hoped that her experiment would show them whether the drug would enable the animal to behave more socially. That was apparently too much, as the octopuses appeared hyper-vigilant and stared. Serotonin activity rises when exposed to ecstasy say researchers.

The researchers set up the experiment by dividing a salt-water tank into three chambers. The "social" chamber contained another octopus (sitting under an orchid pot full of holes, just in case fights broke out), while the "object" chamber contained a figurine of the Star Wars character Chewbacca.

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Without being drugged, all the octopuses, male and female, were interested in socialising with female octopuses, but not male ones. They absorbed the MDMA through their gills. The octopuses not only spent more time with other octopus individuals including other males while on the drug, but they also engaged in extensive ventral surface contact.

"An octopus doesn't have a cortex, and doesn't have a reward circuit", Dölen said. "They just embraced with multiple arms". That allowed the team to make comparisons between the genes in octopuses and humans. The findings add evidence to the idea that social behavior has a long evolutionary history - and goes back much farther than researchers ever anticipated. Finally, the results could significantly impact what we know about the evolution of brains and why MDMA-assisted therapy seems to be such a useful tool in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

"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.

Other researchers have raised questions about the study's methodology, however.

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