Octopuses get very friendly when they're on MDMA, study reveals

Christopher Davidson
September 23, 2018

Scientists have found out what happens when you give an octopus MDMA - nearly the exact same thing as when you give it to a human.

"Despite anatomical differences between octopus and human brain, we've shown that there are molecular similarities in the serotonin transporter gene", says Gul Dolen of Johns Hopkins University, noting that the gene encodes a transmembrane protein that serves as the primary binding site for MDMA.

And yes, the octopuses acted like they took ecstasy. A similar feature is present also in humans.

Octopuses are known for their intelligence.

Previously, scientists were able to instill addiction fishes Dario rerio providing them with food with the addition of opioids.

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. But an octopus on MDMA would get up-close and personal with the new neighbor. They absorbed the MDMA through their gills. Prior to the experiment, they had to perform a check on the California two-spot octopus that they selected for the study.

One octopus was doing back flips, according to Dr Dolen, who said that some of the behaviours were so odd the research team couldn't quantify them.

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The researchers set up the experiment by dividing a salt-water tank into three chambers. One central room, one containing a male octopus, and another that held within it a toy.

"After MDMA, they were essentially hugging", says Dolen, who explains that the octopuses were "really just much more relaxed in posture, and using a lot more of their body to interact with the other octopus". All four tended to spend more time in the chamber where an octopus was caged than the other two chambers. And except when mating, they are notably unfriendly to other octopuses. At first, when they had ingested too much of the drug their breathing became erratic and they turned white.

And another spent part of the time doing flips, and another seemed especially interested in minor sounds and smells.

So what was the point of doing such experiment?

While octopuses are intelligent creatures, their brains are physically very differently to those of humans.

Dölen said that the findings of this study may open doors to for more accurate studies on the impact of psychiatric drug therapies in a variety of animals that are distantly related to people. But, serious interest in MDMA has grown as researchers have begun discovering promising applications of the drug in treating PTSD and other disorders. "Recent studies have uncovered exciting novel mechanisms underlying many of these abilities, which have been harnessed for innovative tissue engineering and robotics applications".

The research team then logged the time spent in each chamber normally and again after the water in the tank was laced with MDMA.

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