Here's What Happened When Octopuses Took MDMA

Science Magazine recently reported on how octopuses would react to MDMA, a drug you might recognize by the name molly, or ecstasy. A team of researchers created an experiment to see how this drug affects their behavior. They found that humans may not be as different from octopuses as we thought.

In an interview with Gizmodo, Gül Dölen, assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, said that they hoped to see whether the octopus, an animal famous for its solitary nature, would get a little more friendly once the serotonin was released.

"An octopus doesn't have a cortex, and doesn't have a reward circuit. And yet it's able to respond to MDMA and produce the same effects, in an animal with a totally different brain organization. To me, that means we really need to appreciate that the business end of these things is at the level of the molecule."
Scientists chose two-spot octopuses, and provided them with a single serving of ecstasy in liquid form, which they inserted into a tank of water. Researchers placed four of these creatures into four tanks with the drug, so that they could inhale it using their gills. The animals were then relocated into a water tank with three different rooms. Each octopus had the option of hanging out in the bare room, a room with a small toy, or a room with another (caged) octopus.

The team wondered what the animals would choose to do in their altered states. Would they socialize more than normal?

Octopus on sand
Getty Images | David McNew

Curiously, researchers saw that each octopus chose to spend the most time in the room with the other octopus, and they even acted similarly to the way they act when they're looking for mates. The creatures seemed to want to hug the other octopus. They also were observed "kissing" the other (drug-free) animal's cages, almost as if trying to woo them.

MDMA works by attaching itself to protein in your body's neurons. Once this occurs, a person will begin to feel relaxed and happy as the cells in our brains begin to release serotonin. Not all animals experience a high when they take a drug, which is why it's remarkable that the octopuses seem to share the same feelings we do while under the influence.

This is just one study, however, and larger sample sizes are needed to determine how widespread these effects might be. If the human brain does share previously unknown similarities with the octopus, then we may be able to use these to study various health treatments, and to learn more about our own brains.