When people take MDMA, the drug popularly known as ecstasy, a rush of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin produces feelings of emotional closeness and euphoria, making people more interested than normal in connecting with other people. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on Sept. 20 have made the surprising discovery that a species of octopus considered to be primarily solitary and asocial responds to MDMA similarly: by becoming much more interested in engaging with one other.
By studying the genome of a kind of octopus not known for its friendliness toward its peers, then testing its behavioral reaction to a popular mood-altering drug called MDMA or 'ecstasy,' scientists say they have found preliminary evidence of an evolutionary link between the social behaviors of the sea creature and humans, species separated by 500 million years on the evolutionary tree.
By studying the genome of a kind of octopus not known for its friendliness toward its peers, then testing its behavioral reaction to a popular mood-altering drug called MDMA or "ecstasy," scientists say they have found preliminary evidence of an evolutionary link between the social behaviors of the sea creature and humans, species separated by 500 million years on the evolutionary tree.
The fun began when the researchers gave MDMA to seven Octopus bimaculoides octopuses inside laboratory tanks. They hoped to test whether the animals behaved more socially after receiving a dose of MDMA—a sign that the drug bound to their serotonin transporters.
After hanging out in a bath containing ecstasy, the animals moved to a chamber with three rooms to pick from: a central room, one containing a male octopus and another containing a toy. This is a setup frequently used in mice studies. Before MDMA, the octopuses avoided the male octopus. But after the MDMA bath, they spent more time with the other octopus, according to the study published in Current Biology. They also touched the other octopus in what seemed to be an exploratory, rather than aggressive, manner.
The scientists took this to mean that despite our vastly different brains, social behavior is built into the very molecules coded by our DNA, Dölen explained.
“An octopus doesn’t have a cortex, and doesn’t have a reward circuit,” Gül Dölen, assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, told Gizmodo. “And yet it’s able to respond to MDMA and produce the same effects, in an animal with a totally different brain organization. To me, that means we really need to appreciate that the business end of these things is at the level of the molecule.”
The mood-altering drug MDMA -- which promotes positive, friendly social interactions in humans by inhibiting serotonin uptake in nerve cells -- has a similar behavioral effect in an octopus species, scientists reported today. This indicates that serotonin has been functioning as a regulator of social behavior for at least 500 million years, when the human and octopus lineages evolutionarily diverged.
Normally antisocial sea creature becomes friendly and tactile after being given the drug, scientists say
What happens when you give an octopus MDMA? It sounds like a question that might flit through the meandering mind of someone who had been dabbling in psychedelics. But now the matter has become the focus of an unlikely-sounding scientific experiment to uncover the ancient origins of social behaviour.
By showing that the normally antisocial sea creature became friendly and tactile after being given MDMA, also known as ecstasy, scientists believe they have made a link between the social behaviours of humans and a species from which we are separated by more than 500m years of evolution.
If you've ever wondered what would happen if you gave an octopus a strong dose of ecstasy then wonder no more. A couple of intrepid researchers have recently revealed the results of a compelling set of experiments finding that social behavior can be triggered in a particularly asocial species of octopus through exposure to MDMA.
Our species might have diverged 500 million years ago, but octopuses on ecstasy behave just as people do in many ways
The last week has been a notable one for our understanding of animal life, thanks to two very different research papers appearing within a couple of days of each other.
One continued a tradition of surprises from the octopus – and generated headlines around the world. Scientists Eric Edsinger and Gül Dölen gave octopuses the “party drug” MDMA, or ecstasy, and found that on the drug they were more inclined to approach other octopuses, and also interacted less cautiously, initiating more body contact.
A small new study has shown how MDMA could help reduce social anxiety in people with autism.
12 participants took part in the research, and those who had MDMA-assisted therapy reported more of an impact on their confidence.
The study adds to a growing body of research on how drugs such as MDMA can help with anxiety disorders.
Microdosing with other drugs like LSD and ketamine has also shown positive results.
Microdosing has become a popular field of research, with more and more studies coming out showing potential benefits of taking small quantities of psychedelic drugs.
Many effects of taking these drugs have been documented, such as boosting mood, helping emotional balance, improving performance, and treating mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
The small study involved just 12 people, all of whom had autism. Those who were given two sessions of MDMA-assisted therapy reported a greater reduction of social anxiety than those who were given a placebo with the therapy.
Researchers from the Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center used the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (LSAS) to measure the participants' social anxiety. Essentially, it gives you a score for how socially phobic you are (a higher score meaning you are more socially anxious.)
Those who took the MDMA saw a reduction of 44.1 points on average, compared to 19.3 in the placebo group.
Although the study was small, the researchers are confident of the positive impacts of MDMA on the participants.
"What was particularly notable for many of the participants after treatment was their increased self-confidence when interacting in social settings, an endeavor that in the past they had experienced as overwhelming," said Charles Grob, one of the authors of the study.
"We hope that our study will help to establish a foundation for future investigations exploring the safety and efficacy of MDMA in the treatment of social anxiety in vulnerable patient populations."
There were no unexpected reactions to the MDMA therapy, but people did report similar side effects to what they have in previous research, such as fatigue, headaches, and sensitivity to the cold — although none of them were serious or debilitating.
Those who took part said they felt fewer barriers when interacting with people at school, work, or in their friendship groups.
"I felt like I was experiencing my best self and seeing the world for the first time and seeing myself for the first time," said one participant.
"I realised communication is not just about talking," said another. "Now, I take time to notice my emotions and others' emotions before talking."
Even DMT, derived from ayahuasca and thought to be the most psychedelic and hallucinogenic drug in the world, could have therapeutic benefits.
"I believe DMT can be utilised in a therapeutic setting as a revolutionary treatment used to heal people," said one user of DMT. "The world is changing and I think we're entering a new era of human civilization."
As for researchers, they hope to continue building a profile of how to use these kinds of drugs safely. Alicia Danforth, another author of the MDMA research, said she hopes their paper will inspire funding for larger studies.
"We are looking forward to sharing what we learned with other researchers and communities committed to improving the quality of care for autistic adults and other populations struggling with social anxiety," she said.