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Giving octopuses ecstasy reveals surprising link to humans
A groundbreaking new study shows that octopuses seemed to exhibit uncharacteristically social behavior when given MDMA, the psychedelic drug commonly known as ecstasy.
- Octopuses, like humans, have genes that seem to code for serotonin transporters.
- Scientists gave MDMA to octopuses to see whether those genes translated into a binding site for serotonin, which regulates emotions and behavior in humans
- Octopuses, which are typically asocial creatures, seem to get friendlier while on MDMA, suggesting humans have more in common with the strange invertebrates than previously thought
It may seem like octopuses and humans have nothing in common.
After all, octopuses separated from humans on the evolutionary family tree nearly 500 million years ago, and with their eight arms, three hearts and sharp beaks, they bare little resemblance to primates. The venomous cephalopods possess extraordinarily large brains whose neurons, unlike humans, are distributed mostly throughout their arms, composing a uniquely complex nervous system. Octopuses also wield strange, alien-like abilities: They can taste what they touch, paralyze prey with saliva, change their skin color to use camouflage, and blind enemies with jets of ink.
But one thing octopuses and humans have in common is intelligence.
Thought to be among the planet's first intelligent creatures, octopuses have been observed to play, navigate mazes and even collect coconut shells to build shelter, an example of tool use. They also display an uncanny ability to escape from human captivity. In 2016, a young octopus at New Zealand's National Aquarium was able to squeeze himself through a tiny gap at the top of his tank, flop to the floor, slither down a long drainpipe, and plop into the ocean, never to be seen by aquarium staff again.
A crucial difference
Despite this cognitive sophistication, many scientists have long thought octopuses and other invertebrates lack the neural requirements needed to experience emotion or practice social behaviors in the ways mammals do.
However, a new study published in the journal Current Biology challenges that long-held presumption by showing that administering MDMA to octopuses seems to elicit social behavior in them, suggesting that the architecture for experiencing such phenomena extends farther back in evolutionary history than previously thought.
All five of the octopuses that completed this part of the experiment spent far more time in the room with the toy, though both male and female octopuses did tentatively explore the other room when a female was in the cage.
The researchers then conducted this experiment again, but this time, each octopus was bathed in water containing MDMA before entering the three-zone tank. Unlike before, the octopuses on MDMA seemed far more interested in the room with the octopus, at times touching it in an exploratory manner, instead of the room with the lifeless toy.
The three-zone tank used in the experiment. Cage with toy on left, cage with octopus on right.
(Eric Edsinger, Gül Dölen)
An eight-armed hug
"They were very loose," Dölen said. "They just embraced with multiple arms."
It's impossible to know what the octopuses were experiencing, but Dölen offered her own personal observation (as anecdotal evidence, not scientific) to Inverse: the octopuses acted like humans do when they're on ecstasy.
On high doses, the octopuses breathed intensely and turned white. But on lower doses, the octopuses seemed to display more typical behavior of someone on a psychedelic: one became very interested in minor sounds and scents, another spent some time doing flips in the tank, and one octopus "looked like it was doing water ballet," swimming around with its arms extended.
In humans, MDMA acts on the brain mainly by stimulating activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin. The California two-spot octopus also possesses a serotonin transporter to which MDMA can bind. However, the researchers weren't sure whether this ancient feature was active in the octopuses.
"We needed to check the genome to make sure that the genes that encode the serotonin transporter, which is the protein that MDMA binds to, was still a binding site in octopuses even despite the fact that so much evolutionary time had passed," Dölen told Inverse.
"We performed phylogenetic tree mapping and found that, even though their whole serotonin transporter gene is only 50 to 60% similar to humans, the gene was still conserved. That told us that MDMA would have a place to go in the octopus brain and suggested it could encode sociality as it does in a human brain."
Although they are about as alien from human life as it gets, Dölen's study shows that octopuses share some important characteristics with humans.
(FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images)
Familiar behavior in strange brain structures
The idea that octopus behavior might be regulated by serotonin, which largely controls human emotion, is especially interesting because of how different the creatures are from humans.
"This was such an incredible paper, with a completely unexpected and almost unbelievable outcome," said Judit Pungor, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oregon not involved in the study, in an interview with Gizmodo. "To think that an animal whose brain evolved completely independently from our own reacts behaviorally in the same way that we do to a drug is absolutely amazing."
To be sure, it's not exactly clear why the octopuses "opened up" while they were on MDMA. In addition to the study being limited by sample size, it's possible that the octopuses were more inclined to touch the other octopus because the drug made them more interested in touching in general, not necessarily social touching.
Still, Dölen said that the findings suggest that molecular and cellular genetic information, rather than anatomical data, are more important in deciding whether animals develop social behavior.
"Octopuses don't have the same parts of the brain that we think are important for social behavior, a region called the nucleus accumbens," Dölen told Inverse. "What we're arguing is that the brain regions don't matter. What matters is that they have the molecules, the neurotransmitters, and some configuration of neurons. They have the serotonin transporter and that's enough."
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
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Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.
- The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
- Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
COVID-19 and the brain<p>A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/doi/10.1093/brain/awaa240/5868408" target="_blank">study</a> in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.</p><p>Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.</p>
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images<p>A separate study published in the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198407/" target="_blank">Journal of Clinical Neuroscience</a> notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.</p><p>A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/ucl-iid070620.php" target="_blank">press release</a>. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."</p><p>If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit <a href="https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study" target="_blank">cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study</a>.</p>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.