Ecstasy experiment reveals octopuses' similarity to humans

Desiree Burns
September 21, 2018

Any given octopus is unlikely to seek out companionship from other octopuses, only coming together when it is time to mate.

The findings suggest that, despite the huge evolutionary gulf that separates us, humans and octopuses appear to have similar brain chemistry guiding their social behaviors. And that's the surprising part.

Over 500 million years separates octopuses from humans, which is when the two last had a common ancestor. In terms of our nervous system, we could hardly be more different. When MDMA docks to this protein, our brain cells start to pump out massive quantities of serotonin, the chemical responsible for the warm and friendly feelings of ecstasy's high.

A summary of the experiments was published in Current Biology.

"Despite anatomical differences between octopus and human brain, we've shown that there are molecular similarities in the serotonin transporter gene", author of the study Gül Dölen said.

"What our studies suggest is that certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send signals between neurons required for these social behaviours are evolutionarily conserved".

After the scientists dosed the sea creatures with MDMA by placing them in a solution saturated with the drug, the octopuses were allowed to swim in a tank with three chambers - one empty, another holding a different octopus in a cage, and a third containing a small action figure, such as Chewbacca from "Star Wars".

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Octopuses are normally solitary - but during the experiment, they got very touchy-feely with their fellow octopus in a cage. When high off that Molly, as the kids says, the octopuses displayed an unusual desire to touch their peers.

According to the research, octopuses given MDMA want to spend more time with each other, something mirrored by their human counterparts.

When placed under the influence of MDMA, the octopuses not only spent more time with other individuals, but also engaged in "extensive ventral surface contact".

The study suggests research on octopuses could also help scientists develop drugs in the future as they could be used for drug-testing purposes.

While animal rights advocates have criticised the study, it has been received with great interest by some in the scientific community.

"I was absolutely shocked that it had this effect", said University of OR neuroscientist Judit Pungor.

"This was such an incredible paper, with a completely unexpected and nearly unbelievable outcome", Dr Pungor said.

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