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Octopuses high on MDMA become touchy-feely

Published: 26th October, 2018 at 05:45
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The drug ecstasy appears to have a similar effect on octopuses’ brains as it does on humans’.

If ASBOs were given out to sea creatures, it’s highly likely octopuses would get slapped with more than their fair share. They spend much of their lives alone, frequently get into fights and have even been known to attack and kill one another after mating. Now, a study at Johns Hopkins University has found that giving them a small dose of MDMA – a psychoactive drug also known as ecstasy – makes them so sociable that they touch and hug one another.


The findings suggest there could be an evolutionary link between the social behaviours of the sea creatures and humans despite the species being separated by 500 million years on the evolutionary tree, the researchers say.

“The brains of octopuses are more similar to those of snails than humans, but our studies add to evidence that they can exhibit some of the same behaviours that we can,” said assistant professor Gül Dölen, at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “What our studies suggest is that certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send signals between neurons required for these social behaviours are evolutionarily conserved.”

Why don’t doctors adjust for age and size when prescribing drugs? © iStock

The team placed four California two-spot octopuses that had been exposed to MDMA, one at a time, into a set-up of three connected water chambers: one empty, one with a plastic action figure under a cage and one with a female or male laboratory-bred octopus under a cage. All four tended to spend more time in the chamber where the octopus was caged. Under normal conditions, without MDMA, the octopuses avoided the male caged octopuses.

“It’s not just quantitatively more time, but qualitative. The octopuses tended to hug the cage and also put their mouth parts on the cage,” said Dölen. “This is very similar to how humans react to MDMA; they touch each other frequently.”

However, the team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine cautions that the results are preliminary and need to be replicated before octopuses might be used as models for brain research.

WARNING: Ecstasy (MDMA) is a Class A drug according to UK law. Anyone caught in possession of it will face up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. More information and support for those affected by substance abuse problems can be found at 

This is an extract from issue 327 of BBC Focus magazine.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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