GIVING THE PARTY DRUG ECSTASY TO OCTOPUSES may sound like a joke from a slacker movie. Some news stories about the research have taken a humorous tack, talking about how octopuses on Ecstasy become huggy.
But, in fact, the study has a serious goal and may result in improved understanding of evolution and treatment of human afflictions like post-traumatic stress disorder.
IT’S ABOUT THE GENES
Johns Hopkins University’s Gül Dölen and Marine Biological Laboratory’s Eric Edsinger studied the genes involved with serotonin uptake in the octopus genome, realizing that mechanisms for Ecstasy – more scientifically known as MDMA – and serotonin are the same for octopuses and humans.
Dolen is interested in the evolution of social behavior. Edsinger was part of the team that sequenced the first octopus genome in 2015. That was on the California two-spot octopus, Octopus bimaculoides, the species that was used in the study.
They found the idea of comparing octopuses and humans intriguing because octopuses are very smart, present complex behaviors and are separated from humans by 500 million years of evolution.
YEP, OCTOPUSES ON ECSTASY BECOME HUGGY
Like most octopuses, the two-spot tends to be asocial, largely avoiding the company of even other two spot octopuses except during mating. Exposing two male and two female octopuses to a liquefied form of MDMA, they placed them in a chamber with cages occupied by a male octopus, a female octopus and a toy, for 30 minutes.
All four spent more time in the section occupied by a male than in the other. Moreover, they tended to hug the cage and put their mouth parts on it. This was in clear contrast to five other octopuses that avoided male, caged octopuses.
The scientists took this as suggesting that the gene sequence for this serotonin transporter hasn’t changed over 500 million years. Their findings that octopuses on Ecstasy become huggy need to be replicated in future tests. But the researchers hope that our distant cephalopod cousins may represent a promising model for studying the drug’s effects on human brains, treatment of issues like PTSD and the brain’s evolution to control social behaviors.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: “A Conserved Role for Serotonergic Neurotransmission in Mediating Social Behavior in Octopus,” Current Biology; “Study Indicates a Conserved Role for Serotonin in Regulating Behavior in Octopus, Humans,” Marine Biological Laboratory; “On Ecstasy, Octopuses Reached Out for a Hug,” New York Times; “Octopuses given mood drug ‘ecstasy’ reveal genetic link to evolution of social behaviors in humans,” ScienceDaily.