Sunday, 20 October, 2019

Octopuses given party drugs for science

Octopus bimaculoides the species that was used in the experiment Scientists have discovered how a drug affects the behavior of the octopus
Anna Jefferson | 22 September, 2018, 22:57

A desire to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of this brain power led scientists to give octopuses ecstasy.

When people take MDMA, commonly also known as molly or ecstasy, people report feelings of euphoria.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University wanted to study how serotonin levels in the brain may change while on MDMA, and if the drug can effectively be used to promote social behavior in octopuses, which are naturally nearly entirely antisocial except when mating.

"Despite anatomical differences between octopus and the human brain, we've shown that there are molecular similarities in the serotonin transporter gene", Johns Hopkins researcher Gul Dolen said in a statement. Most octopuses, on the other hand, including O. bimaculoides, are known to be solitary, preferring their own company to that of their fellows. Put two in the same tank, and they will usually stay far away from one another - or try to kill and eat each other.

Octopuses' closest relatives are molluscs such as snails and slugs, and their brains have a host of odd structures that evolved on a completely different trajectory from the human path.

A complete summary of these experiments has been published in the journal Current Biology.

According to the research, octopuses given MDMA want to spend more time with each other, something mirrored by their human counterparts.

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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). A difficulty that the researchers had with this experiment was that it wasn't easy to determine just how much ecstasy the octopuses should be given.

Four male and female octopuses were placed in a tank that contained a liquefied version of ecstasy, and then transferred individually onto three-chambered tanks. "They looked like they were freaked out", says Dolen.

Zachary Mainen, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Portugal, points out that some research done decades ago showed that giving extra serotonin to lobsters can alter their social behavior. Mainen asks. "It's totally fascinating and super-suggestive, but I am not a hundred percent convinced that this is doing the same thing in octopus and in human".

Over 500 million years separates octopuses from humans, which is when the two last had a common ancestor. After spending 10 minutes in a low-dose MDMA bath, however, octopuses were far more inclined to spend time with male octopuses next door, even reaching out to "hug" the pot they sat under. The octopuses also touched the male octopus in a manner that suggested gentle exploration, rather than aggression.

DOLEN: Whereas after MDMA, they were essentially hugging the flower pot that had the other octopus in it.

"They were very loose", Dölen says.

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