Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have discovered that giving MDMA to octopuses can make the normally antisocial creatures friendly and even affectionate. If your first thought upon hearing that news was “Who cares?” or “Why would anyone do that to an octopus,” well, you’re probably not alone. As it turns out, however, humans and octopuses have a lot in common when it comes to brain chemistry, and researchers believe we might be able to learn something by observing how they react to drugs.
MDMA, also known as Molly and ecstasy, is a synthetic drug with similarities to both stimulants and hallucinogens. It gives people increased energy, pleasure, positive emotions, and can distort awareness of objects and conditions as well as the passage of time. It increases the presence of three chemicals in the brain: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dopamine acts in the reward system of the brain, reinforcing drug-taking behavior. Norepinephrine increases heart rate and blood pressure. Serotonin affects mood, appetite, and sleep, and triggers hormones that affect sexual arousal and trust.
Serotonin is the chemical believed to be responsible for the way people feel emotional closeness when taking MDMA, and researchers believe it’s also what led to the strangely affectionate behavior of the octopuses. Normally the creatures want nothing to do with each other outside of mating time, and when they’re kept in captivity they have to be separated so they don’t kill each other. On MDMA, they wanted to spend more time near each other and even exchanged hugs.
The idea for the research originally came from Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. She had been studying MDMA and discovered many of the mechanisms in the brain that caused MDMA to have these emotionally positive effects. Other scientists had previously fully sequenced the genetic code of a certain type of Octopus called the California two-spot octopus and discovered similarities in its genes when compared to humans. Octopuses and humans have nearly identical genes for a certain protein that binds serotonin to brain cells. That protein is also targeted by MDMA, leading Dolen to wonder how the drug would affect an octopus.
Researchers started out by giving the octopuses a high dose of the drug, mixing it into water so it was absorbed through their gills. The animals reacted badly, seeming almost paranoid. They then tried a lower dose, comparable to what a human would take, and that’s when they discovered the sociable behavior. As Dolen points out, humans and octopuses are separated by over 500 million years of evolution, and serotonin has been affecting social functions for all that time.
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