Scientists Give Octopuses Ecstasy, Octopuses Get Huggy

Octopus on X
Olga Visavi / Shutterstock

MDMA, also know as Ecstasy, or Molly, or one of a dozen other names, is a party drug known to cause hallucinations, happy feelings of euphoria, and a desire to touch things, whether they’re walls, furniture, or other people. But what happens when you give it to an octopus?

That’s exactly what two research scientists wanted to find out. Gül Dölen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Eric Edsinger, an octopus researcher at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, published a paper yesterday in Current Biology on the effects of MDMA on octopuses, the New York Times reports.

While extremely intelligent — octopuses are able to open jars, use and make tools, and escape just about any enclosure they’ve been locked in — the cephalopods are known to be antisocial loners with moody temperaments. Their brains are also very different from ours in the way they’re constructed, with a central nerve bundle and secondary bundles — essentially extra brains — in each of their arms. Dölen and Edsinger wanted to find out if MDMA could have the same socializing effects on a brain that was so different from our own.

What they found was that as alien as octopus brains may seem, they’re actually quite similar to our own in a lot of ways.

“Even though octopuses look like they come from outer space, they’re actually not that different from us,” said Dölen.

The researchers discovered that octopuses share with humans a messaging system involving serotonin, a chemical involved in regulating mood and social behavior.

MDMA causes a serotonin flood in the brain between synapses, increasing its signals and leading to the happy, social behavior the drug is known for. And it worked on octopuses just as it does on humans.

The octopuses were soaked in tanks permeated with MDMA, and then placed in a three-chambered tank, where on one side they could interact with a Star Wars figurine, and on the other with a male, non-drugged octopus which was protected by an overturned orchid pot in case the animals became violent.

Not only did the drugged octopuses spend significantly more time with the other octopus than non-drugged animals, they actually began hugging the pot that the male octopus was inside with several of their arms.

Dölen hopes that by studying the effects of MDMA on a complex brain that is nonetheless separated by half a billion years of evolution from our own, we can get a better understanding of how the compound interacts with our own brain.

“We need to be taking full advantage of these compounds to see what they’re doing to the brain,” she said.

The study’s authors hope that it might help illuminate how social behaviors evolved in humans, as well as be potentially useful in treating psychological conditions such as PTSD.