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Why are researchers giving ecstasy to octopuses?

Credits: Wikimedia Commons / Pseudopanax

A team of researchers have recently begun to drug octopuses with ecstasy, but why? Researchers believe it will help them discover the ancient origins of their social behaviour.  The results of this experiment are “incredible“. 

Humans and octopus are very different physically, of course, but also on a cerebral level.  Despite our differences, are there some similarities?  What happens if octopus takes ecstasy? Do they react like humans?  The study shows that octopus display a similar behaviour to humans on this drug. Normally relatively antisocial animals, octopuses become more more friendly and touch-sensitive after having been drugged with ecstasy.  This suggests a link between the two species despite 500 million years of evolution differences.

In order to carry out this study published in Current Biology, researchers administered ecstasy to four California octopus (Octopus bimaculoides). They aimed to find out whether the drug could bind serotonin transporters like in humans.  This is the molecule that is responsible for creating happy feelings, that increases your extroverted behaviour when you are under the drug.  After being drugged, the octopuses were then placed in a three-compartmentalized room: a central room, a container containing another octopus and another with a plastic toy.

Generally speaking octopuses are antisocial. That is why they normally avoid male octopus as they are considered “hostile”. However when they are under the influence of ecstasy, their behaviour was the opposite.

Octopuses were also much more tactile. “They are essentially hugging the cage and expose parts of their body that they normally do not expose to another octopus,” says Gul Dölen, of Johns Hopkins University (USA) and lead author of the study. This is an amazing discovery,  as octopuses display similar behavioural instincts to humans despite our brain differences: “An octopus has no cortex, and has no reward circuit,” says the researcher. Despite these brain differences, the octopuses are able to respond to MDMA (ecstasy). The drug can therefore produce the same effects in an animal with a totally different brain organization.

In light of these results, and despite the small sample size, it is clear that serotonin plays a role in mediating social interactions between species for at least 500 million years.


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