Ecstasy Makes Octopuses More Friendly, Study Shows

Desiree Burns
September 24, 2018

Scientists in the United States have just lived that dream.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University wanted to study how serotonin levels in the brain may change while on MDMA, and if the drug can effectively be used to promote social behavior in octopuses, which are naturally nearly entirely antisocial except when mating.

The data obtained allowed to conclude that in the body of the octopus there is the plot, which is responsible for the involvement of the serotonergic system in the regulation of social behavior.

"They tended to hug the cage and put their mouth parts on the cage", says Gül Dölen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the lead investigator conducting the experiments. However, the MDMA trial group, consisting of four octopuses, showed significantly different behavior. Separated by 500 million years of evolution, human beings also display similar emotional characteristics.

What's even more interesting is that humans on ecstasy are presenting a very similar behavior. It turned out that the octopus has and people protein gene: the serotonin Transporter binding of a neurotransmitter with neurons, are nearly identical. Closer examination revealed the species used the same genes to regulate serotonin uptake. With the drug their behaviour towards other softened. This protein is also the target of MDMA, so Dolen wondered how the drug would affect this usually unfriendly animal.

Humans, rats, and mice are pretty social animals.

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According to Dr. Dolen's genetic analysis of a species of octopus (called California two-spot octopus), the creature's brain can sense MDMA. At first, when they had ingested too much of the drug their breathing became erratic and they turned white.

The researchers set up the experiment by dividing a salt-water tank into three chambers. Without the drug, octopuses approached the cage carefully with one tentacle stretched out, but when on MDMA the octopuses behaved much different. One of the compartments was empty, a second one had an octopus in a cage, while a third one had a small action figure: Chewbacca from "Star Wars". When "high", the octopuses went straight to the caged solitary male. "They were just taking these postures of super hypervigilance".

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

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. And they made a lot of physical contact.

It can't be said for certain if these acts were done through affection as we understand it, but Dolen believes it does show that we may be more similar to seemingly alien creatures than we think, and that some of our social functions that may seem uniquely human could've been encoded much farther back than we realized. That said, after a dose of MDMA, scientists found that octopuses become more "touchy-feely" and their antisocial behavior seemingly disappears once serotonin floods the brain, which is increased by ingesting MDMA.

Scientists have been giving a lonely octopus MDMA to see if it became more sociable - and it worked.

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