Scientists gave an antisocial octopus MDMA and it started getting friendly - including with the other men

A California two-spot octopus. Picture: Thomas Kleindinst

Scientists have been giving a lonely octopus MDMA to see if it became more sociable – and it worked.

Gul Dolen of Johns Hopkins University chose to give Octopus bimaculoides a dose of ecstasy not because it would be fun, but because it’s possible to breed and study their behavior in the lab.

It’s also the only octopus to have its genome fully sequenced, allowing the team to make comparisons between the genes in octopuses and humans.

And there was a question to be answered about whether ancient neurotransmitter systems – octopus and human lineages are separated by more than 500 million years of evolution – are still shared across vertebrate and invertebrate species.

Who are we kidding. Here’s the important bit – what happens when you hand an antisocial octopus its dancing shoes?

Octopus bimaculoides – the California two-spot octopus – lives mostly alone in caves off the southern Californian coast. It hooks up to breed, once, then dies.

But given a dose of presumably high-quality lab MDMA, the research team found that it responded in much the same way as humans would – by “becoming much more interested than usual in engaging with one other”.

The males became particularly interested in other females, but the team noticed they also engaged with other males while on the drug, including “extensive ventral surface contact”.

Certainly more interested than in the other objects they were exposed to, namely:

  • a plastic orchid pot with red weight
  • a plastic bottle with green weight
  • a Galactic Heroes Stormtrooper figurine, and
  • a Galactic Heroes Chewbacca figurine

“That unusual physical contact between individuals appeared exploratory, not aggressive, in nature,” the team wrote in the report published in Current Biology.

Broadly, it’s all about studying the evolution of social behaviour.

The findings show that despite being evolutionarily distant from octopuses, humans share a common evolutionary heritage that enables serotonin – the part of MDMA that produces “feelings of emotional closeness and euphoria” – to encode social behaviors.

“Despite anatomical differences between octopus and human brain, we’ve shown that there are molecular similarities in the serotonin transporter gene,” says Gul Dolen of Johns Hopkins University.

“These molecular similarities are sufficient to enable MDMA to induce prosocial behaviors in octopuses.”

You can read the full report here.

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