Octopuses High on MDMA Gave Eight-Armed Hugs

The party drug transformed the normally antisocial animals.

There’s a lot we don’t know about octopuses, but scientists have understood for a long time that they’re fairly antisocial creatures. Left to their own devices, octopuses are basically hermits, spending most of their time in hiding and avoiding members of the opposite sex until it’s the one time of year they have to mate. And then they retreat again into isolation. That is, unless they’re on MDMA.

In September, a groundbreaking pilot study in Current Biology from researchers at Johns Hopkins University explored what happens to the notorious anti-socialites when they’re given the party drug MDMA, which is well known for promoting very social feelings among vertebrates, like humans. Might it have the same effect on invertebrates, the literally spineless creatures whose brains are structured completely differently to ours?

This is #2 on Inverse’s list of the 25 Most WTF stories of 2018.

The very different social lives of octopuses had long been chalked up to this difference in brain structure, but the Johns Hopkins experiments showed that they have more in common with vertebrates than we once realized.

As Inverse reported in September, MDMA helped the two-spot octopuses in the experiment open up, much like people on MDMA. “They were very loose,” said Gül Dölen, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, at the time. “They just embraced with multiple arms.”

Seeing octopuses on MDMA, she added, was like watching “an eight-armed hug.”

In the experiments, the scientists placed an octopus in the middle chamber of a three-section aquarium and observed how it moved between sections. On one end of the aquarium was a chamber containing another octopus inside a cage; on the other end was a chamber containing an inanimate toy, like Stormtrooper or Chewbacca figurine. The team hypothesized that the MDMA-dosed octopuses would spend more time with the caged octopus.

Sure enough, the octopuses that had first hung out in a tank of MDMA-laced water spent more time connecting with their caged counterparts than the drug-free, control group of octopuses, which generally preferred to hang out with the Star Wars toys. When the control octopuses did attempt to hang out with the caged octopus, they did so hesitantly; Dölen said they would “push against the wall and sort of delicately touch the container that had the octopus in it.” The MDMA-dosed octopuses, meanwhile, went right in for the hug.

MDMA octopuses
Octopuses had the choice to hang out on the side of the aquarium with an inanimate object or a caged live octopus.

The research, Dölen explained, suggests that the molecular pathways in the brain that allow vertebrates to respond to MDMA in a social manner might also be shared among invertebrates, despite the fundamental differences in brain structures between the two groups. In humans, MDMA binds to SERT, the same receptor that binds serotonin, a neurotransmitter implicated in regulating sociality, among other behaviors. This experiment suggested that octopuses share that serotonin pathway — and so might have what it takes to be social after all.

As some other scientists pointed out to Inverse at the time, however, it’ll take more than a couple of drug-addled, hugging octopuses to prove that they’re capable of “socializing,” but this study is a good start. Future studies may show that we share more with these intelligent, alien-like creatures than just the sea.

As 2018 draws to a close, Inverse is counting down the 25 stories that made us go WTF. Some are gross, some are amazing, and some are just, well, WTF. In our ranking from least to most WTF, this has been #2. Read the original article here.

Watch the full 25 WTF countdown in the video below.