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Social Cephalopods: Octopuses on Ecstasy

October 10th, 2018 | by Lily Holbrook
Social Cephalopods: Octopuses on Ecstasy
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Octopuses on ecstasy. I bet that wasn’t a headline you were expecting to see. Recent research however has investigated just that, yielding fascinating results. We may be aware of the euphoric effects of MDMA on humans, but what happens when you give the drug to an eight-limbed octopus?

(The answer is a lot of tentacle-y hugs)

MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, is a stimulant drug that upon intake triggers the release of serotonin in the brain. You may know serotonin for its reputation as the ‘happy drug’, and it is the release of this chemical that leads to the increased affection and heightened social activity commonly observed in human users.

Aside from the obvious difference in the number of arms, humans and octopuses are very different in terms of their brain structure. While humans have a central brain unit, octopuses have the majority of their neurons in their arms which account for two thirds of the brain system. However, despite this difference, findings from the recent study published in the Current Biology Journal have found that the effect of MDMA on the Californian two-spot octopus and humans is shockingly similar.

Despite the bizarre and largely controversial nature of this research, leading pharmacologists are hoping that this ground-breaking new study may pave the way for future studies in the area.

When placed in a beaker containing diluted MDMA, four individuals of the species Octopus bimaculoides began to show increased affection towards another caged target octopus, described by neuroscientist and co-author of the study, Gül Dölen, as witnessing ‘an eight-armed hug’. This contrasts to the antisocial behaviour displayed by the animals before being exposed to MDMA, which is typical for cephalopods under normal non-breeding circumstances. So, just like an anxious human looking to become more sociable, it would appear that octopuses also open up when on ecstasy.

However, just like any study, these findings must be approached with caution. Octopuses are notoriously clever animals, and despite the apparent parallels in the behaviour of this small sample of cephalopods with humans, this may be a bias of human interpretation. Researchers have suggested that there may be numerous other explanations for the behaviour, with invertebrate behavioural physiologist at Dalhousie University, Shelley Adamo, proposing the idea that the release of serotonin may increase foraging behaviour in octopuses. So, what if their increased interest meant something different altogether?

The use of MDMA for medical purposes is a complex issue that has historically proven divisive, however the drug’s ability to have a relaxing effect supports the argument that the drug should be legalised for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Professor David Nutt, neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London is a strong advocate for further research in this field and believes that the recent study has allowed us to confirm that “serotonin has a hugely important role in mediating social interactions right across species.” So perhaps we’re not as different to octopuses as first thought. Maybe cephalopods aren’t so antisocial after all?

Despite the bizarre and largely controversial nature of this research, leading pharmacologists are hoping that this ground-breaking new study may pave the way for future studies in the area. Ultimately it is hoped that this will further our understanding of the effects of recreational and psychedelic drugs, and consequently improve our knowledge of human social behaviour.

Who knows which animal we’ll see drugged up next?

 

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