Scientists gave octopuses ecstasy and it revealed a secret genetic link to humans

  22 September 2018    Read: 1315
Scientists gave octopuses ecstasy and it revealed a secret genetic link to humans

Scientists have discovered what happens when you give the party drug MDMA to an octopus, and say the animals surprising reaction has “amazing” implications.

A team of researchers in the US decided to give a group of octopuses MDMA, often referred to as ecstasy or Molly to see how it would alter their behavior.

After being dosed, the sea creatures become much more social, friendly and interested in others.

It made the animals — normally anti-social creatures — want to gather together, hug, and touch each other in a curious fashion.

Remarkably, they exhibited much the same behavior as humans do when taking the drug that produces feeling of euphoria and a desire for social connection. And that’s the surprising part.

As the researchers pointed out, human and octopus lineages are separated by over 500 million years of evolution and show divergent anatomical patterns of brain organization. In terms of our nervous system, we could hardly be more different.

The purpose of the study was for scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts to work out if octopuses and humans shared any genetic links.

The experiment revealed both species had near-identical genomic codes for the transporter than binds serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood and is thought to be a contributor to feelings of wellbeing and happiness.

“Despite these differences, growing evidence suggests that ancient neurotransmitter systems are shared across vertebrate and invertebrate species and in many cases enable overlapping functions,” scientists wrote in the study report published in the journal Current Biology.



Basically, MDMA works on a molecular level to make octopuses feel warm and fuzzy, just like us.

“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 behaviorss that we can,” said Dr Gül Dölen, a professor at John Hopkins University who led the experiments.

“What our studies suggest is that certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send signals between neurons required for these social behaviorss are evolutionarily conserved.”

To test how the behavior of the sea animals might change while under the effects of MDMA, researchers built three underwater chambers that were all connected. One was empty, one had a plastic action figure underneath a cage, and another had a female or male laboratory-bred octopus under a cage.

The octopus was then put in a liquid solution of the ecstasy drug which they absorbed through their gills before being placed in the water chambers for 30 minutes to gauge their behavior.

Despite usually being very asocial creatures, all four spent more time in the chamber with the caged octopus than the other two chambers — and they acted uncharacteristically friendly. When high off that Molly, as the kids says, the octopuses displayed an unusual desire to touch their peers.

“They tended to hug the cage and put their mouth parts on the cage,” Dr Dölen said.“This is very similar to how humans react to MDMA; they touch each other frequently.”

Comparatively, a control group of five sober octopuses tended to avoid the chamber with the caged octopus.

The study suggests research on octopuses could also help scientists develop drugs in the future as they could be used for drug-testing purposes.

While animal rights advocates have critzicied the study, it has been received with great interest by some in the scientific community.

Speaking to Gizmodo, Judit Pungor, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oregon who was not involved in the study said the results were completely unexpected.

“This was such an incredible paper, with a completely unexpected and almost unbelievable outcome,” Dr. Pungor said.

“To think that an animal whose brain evolved completely independently from our own reacts behaviorally in the same way that we do to a drug is absolutely amazing.”


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