Octopuses are very mysterious and complex creatures, but how different are they really from humans? According to a new study, when it comes to social behaviors in response to ecstasy, octopuses are not so different from humans after all.

500-Million Year Difference

Humans and octopuses are separated by 500 million years on the evolutionary tree and octopus brains are far more similar to those of snails’ than humans’, but how different can the two species really be? In a new study, evidence shows of genomic links between octopuses and humans when it comes to social behaviors in response to methylendioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) or more commonly known as ecstasy, a popular mood-enhancing drug.

Researchers Eric Edsinger, Ph.D., and Gül Dölen, M.D., Ph.D. had a closer look at the genomic sequence of the California two-spot octopus and found that they and humans have nearly identical genomic codes for the transporter that binds serotonin, a mood regulator, to the neuron’s membrane. As it happens, it is also the transporter where ecstasy binds to the brain cells and alters mood.

Octopuses On Ecstasy

In humans and other vertebrates, ecstasy tends produce pro-social behavior, and the study authors conducted an experiment to see whether octopuses are also susceptible to the same effects given the discovery in regard to their genomic code.

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. One of the tanks was empty, another contained a plastic action figure that could possibly get the octopuses’ attention, while another contained a male or female laboratory-bred octopus under a cage.

Typically, octopuses are non-social creatures that tend to avoid or shy away from other creatures including other octopuses unless it is mating season. However, under the influence of ecstasy, researchers note that all four octopuses spent several minutes more in the chamber with the octopus compared to the other two, and they even observed hugging and non-aggressive exploratory behaviors that are typically only seen during mating season.

Model For Brain Research?

“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,” said Dölen.

That said, researchers note that the results are still preliminary given the small sample size, and that further research is needed before octopuses can be used as models for brain research.

The research is published in Current Biology.

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