Octopuses: They’re just like us! When they’re rolling on molly, anyway. In an attempt to study social behavior and brain chemistry in the animals, scientists decided to dose them with MDMA. (Yes, really.) Just like humans, the octopuses became much more social, cuddly, and lovey-dovey on the drug.
To measure the effect of MDMA, also known as ecstasy or molly, on octopuses, the research team devised an experiment with two phases. To start, they put the animals in a tank with three compartments. To the octopus’s left would be another octopus in a cage, and to its right would be an inanimate object like a Chewbacca action figure. Sober octopuses spent the majority of their time hanging out in the compartment with the inanimate object. That’s not really a surprise — California two-spot octopuses, the species used in this study, are very solitary by nature. When not looking for a mate, they enjoy hiding, being alone, and foraging for food. (Same.)
But in phase two, researchers bathed the animals in saline water dosed with liquified MDMA — that’s right, they gave them an ecstasy bath — for ten minutes. (That was the easiest way for scientists to administer the drug to the animals, who directly absorbed it from the water through their gills.) After a quick rinse, they plunked the octopuses back into that tri-sectioned tank with Chewbacca (or another random object) and another octopus. High on MDMA, the octopuses spent considerably more time interacting with the other octopus in the tank, and made a lot of exploratory tentacle contact, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology. That contact was essentially an octopus cuddle. “It’s like an eight-armed hug,” Gül Dölen, a neuroscientist and study author, told Inverse.
The fact that these animals experience MDMA similarly to humans is peculiar — octopus and human brains are vastly different in structure. But genetic analyses show that, like humans, the California two-spot octopus has a gene that produces serotonin transporters, which are molecules that transport serotonin to the brain. When we take molly, it binds to those serotonin transporters and changes the way the feel-good molecule travels throughout our brains, inducing that “rolling” high and feelings of happiness.
We’re separated from octopuses on the evolutionary tree by more than 500 million years, but it seems like we process serotonin in a similar way — that means two things. One: Continued study on octopus behavior and brains could be useful for studying human neurobiology. As psychoactive drugs become more mainstream in medical treatment, better understanding how they affect the brain could open doors to new treatments for mental-health conditions some time in the future. MDMA, for instance, has been shown to be useful in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And, as Smithsonian points out, serotonin processing is linked to a handful of social anxiety disorders as well as Autism Spectrum Disorder.
And two: Perhaps even our distant common ancestor with octopuses could roll on molly a long, long time ago.