Octopuses who take ecstasy behave just like pill-popping human ravers, scientists find

Scientists have discovered that feeding octopuses ecstasy makes them behave just like loved-up, touchy-feely human ravers.

Researchers suggested MDMA, the active chemical in ecstasy, works on the underwater creatures the same way as it does on us.

However, it’s much harder for the beasts to put their hands in the air and wave them like they just don’t care because eight limbs are more difficult to control than two.

(Photo: Thomas Kleindinst /

The research suggests there is some sort of evolutionary link between the social behaviours of the sea creature and humans – despite both species being 500 million years apart on the ‘tree of life’.

The last common ancestor we shared was a worm-like marine creature.

Lead investigator Professor Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, said: ‘The brains of octopuses are more similar to those of snails than humans.

‘But our studies add to evidence they can exhibit some of the same behaviours we can.

‘What our studies suggest is certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send signals between neurons required for these social behaviours are evolutionarily conserved.’

His bizarre experiments analysed the genome of the California two spot octopus, which is particularly unfriendly towards its peers, then tested its reactions after being given the drug.

Like most octopuses, this eight-legged loner generally keeps to itself unless it’s looking to have sex and produce offspring.

The research published in Current Biology may open the door to accurately studying the impact of psychiatric drug therapies in many animals distantly related to people.

Ecstasy pills make humans (and octopuses) sociable and affectionate (Photo: Getty)

Professor Dolen said octopuses are well known for their intelligence. They can trick prey to come into their clutches, and it is believed they also learn by observation.

Like humans, they are thought to have an episodic memory, which is very rare in the animal kingdom. This is the recollection of autobiographical events or past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place.

The invertebrates also have a well-earned reputation for escaping from their tank, eating other animals’ food, eluding caretakers and sneaking around.

But most are anti-social and avoid interactions with other octopuses unless they have ingested a load of MDMA.

Professor Dolen suspected there may be a link between the genetics that influence social behaviour in octopuses and humans.

He said: ‘It’s not just quantitatively more time, but qualitative. They tended to hug the cage and put their mouthparts on the cage.

‘This is very similar to how humans react to MDMA; they touch each other frequently.’

The researchers found that octopuses and humans had almost identical systems for carrying the ‘feel good chemical’ serotonin through the brain.

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, is a psychoactive drug commonly known as ecstasy (Photo: Getty)

Professor Dolen designed an experiment in which four male and female octopi were put in a tank with three equal-sized chambers

In one was a plastic action figure, another a second octopus and the last was left empty.

The animals were monitored for 30 minutes and the two males focused their attention only on the females – while shunning other males.

Then, after waiting several hours, they soaked the four male and female octopuses in an ecstasy bath for 10 minutes which they absorbed through their gills, before returning them to the partitioned tank.

This time, there was a clear difference. The octopi were ‘high’, spending much more time with other octopi, of both sexes, than before.

All four tended to spend more time in the chamber where a male octopus was caged than the other two chambers.

This is markedly unusual behaviour for the creatures, who normally stick to themselves. Social behaviour that is normally suppressed was being expressed.

Prof Dolen said: ‘It’s not just quantitatively more time, but qualitative. They tended to hug the cage and put their mouth parts on the cage.

‘This is very similar to how humans react to MDMA; they touch each other frequently.’

The results are preliminary but if replicated in further studies octopuses may be used as models for brain research.

When people take ecstasy, a rush of serotonin and other chemicals linked to mood including dopamine and oxytocin produce feelings of emotional closeness and euphoria.

This makes them more interested than they would normally be in connecting and sharing with others.

Professor Dolen said: ‘Despite anatomical differences between octopus and human brains, we’ve shown that there are molecular similarities in the serotonin transporter gene.

‘These molecular similarities are sufficient to enable MDMA to induce prosocial behaviours in octopuses.’

The researchers are now in the process of sequencing the genomes of two other species of octopus, which are closely related but differ in their behaviours.

By comparing them, they hope to gain more insight into the evolution of social behaviour.

In humans, Ecstasy leads to a brutal comedown the next day where people will feel depressed and low.

There were 98 ecstasy-related deaths in the UK in 2016, up from 12 in 2010.


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