MDMA is known for causing feelings of love and affection in humans, but one could only guess at the effect it would have on octopuses, creatures that are often housed away from each other due to the risk of one killing the other.
Before the MDMA, octopuses avoided the male octopus, but spent much more time with the other creature after they had taken the drug.
Researchers claim to have found preliminary evidence of an evolutionary link between the social behaviours of octopuses and humans. They have a complex nervous system that has evolved in a dramatically different way from that of humans, with bundles of neurons in each of their eight legs connected to a central bundle of neurons. Judit Pungor, a neuroscientist at the University of OR, told NPR, "I was absolutely shocked that it had this effect.They have this huge complex brain that they've built, that has absolutely no business acting like ours does - but here they show that it does". "The fact that they induced this very sort of gentle, cuddly behavior is really pretty fascinating". "This is very similar to how humans react to MDMA; they touch each other frequently". It is this same protein that is affected by MDMA.
A study, published in Current Biology and conducted by Johns Hopkins University and the Marine Biological Laboratory, involved an experiment that placed a hand-sized octopus in the center chamber of a three-chambered tank. They then returned them to the sectioned-off chambered areas in the aquarium. All four tended to spend more time in the chamber where an octopus was caged than the other two chambers.
What does this mean for science (other than octopuses are cuter than we thought)?
The research team then logged the time spent in each chamber normally and again after the water in the tank was laced with MDMA. Initially, the octopuses loitered more in the tank with the toy with it.
Octopuses are nearly entirely antisocial, except when they're mating, and scientists who study them have to house them separately so they don't kill or eat each other.
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At first, when they received a little too much MDMA, they breathed erratically and turned white.
Other researchers have raised questions about the study's methodology, however.
It doesn't just tell us more about the evolution of serotonergic signalling in the regulation of social behaviours - it's a finding that could help study and develop psychiatric drugs, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants.
When The Beatles recorded the song "Octopus's Garden", they probably imagined a friendly octopus that invited humans to sing and dance around in their underwater garden (in the shade).
Creatures across the whole of the animal kingdom exhibit social behaviours, from invertebrates including ants and bees, through to vertebrates like fish and primates.
Octopuses are intelligent animals but, unlike us, they do not have a localised brain with a cortex.