Scientists have discovered that a usually antisocial octopus becomes more social and exploratory when given party drug MDMA, similar to what humans experience while on ecstasy, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University and the Marine Biological Laboratory, found when asocial octopuses are introduced to MDMA, they showed more interest in other octopuses to the point where they would touch each other in an exploratory way rather than being aggressive or predatory.
As the study notes, though humans and octopuses are separated by more than 500 million years of evolution, there’s a similarity in the way the brain handles serotonin, a chemical believed to regulate social behaviour and mood.
“The brains of octopuses are more similar to those of snails than humans, but our studies add to evidence that they can exhibit some of the same behaviours that we can,” Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University said in statement.
Speaking with National Public Radio (NPR), Dolen explained that humans and octopuses have nearly identical genes for a protein that binds serotonin to brain cells, a protein which ecstasy targets.
The research team bathed the antisocial octopuses in an MDMA solution to study its effects. They started with a high dosage.
“They really didn’t like it. They looked like they were freaked out,” Dolen told NPR. “They were just taking these postures of super hypervigilance. They would sit in the corner of the tank and stare at everything.”
However, on a lower dosage, researchers noticed a difference in behaviour.
“They spent significantly more time in the side of the tank, the chamber that had the other octopus in it,” she said. “After MDMA, they were essentially hugging.”
Dolen added that the octopuses “were really just much more relaxed in posture, and using a lot more of their body to interact with the other octopuses.”
The scientist warned that the results of the study were very preliminary and need to be replicated “before octopuses might be used as models for brain research.”
“What our studies suggest is that certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send signals between neurons required for these social behaviors are evolutionarily conserved,” Dolen said.