Scientists Gave Octopuses Ecstasy To Study Social Behavior

Beautiful octopus in the blue sea.

Octopuses keep popping up in some pretty far-out studies, like the one that suggested our tentacled-friends may have hitched a ride on an interstellar comet, before crash landing on Earth. But a recent study decided to drug these panspermic alien ambassadors with a dose of MDMA – the empathogen more commonly known as ecstasy or molly – to see if octopuses get the same warm, cuddly reaction to the drug that we do.

And according to the recent paper published in Current Biology… they sure do.

The paper’s authors Gül Dölen and Eric Edsinger conducted the experiment in order to study serotonin’s role in the evolution of social behavior. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain, believed to contribute to feelings of well-being, happiness, and motivation – it’s what makes us want to interact with each other.

The complexity of an octopus brain is similar to ours in many ways, only having branched off from us about 500 million years ago on the evolutionary timeline. But the necessary cognitive systems – like a cortex and reward circuit – which give humans the sense of love, empathy, and connection, are missing in the cephalopod brain.

And while one might expect octopuses to be socialites, constantly probing everything with those noodley appendages, they are in fact asocial animals – not just antisocial, but asocial. The only time they interact with one another is to mate, otherwise they are completely hostile.

So, when scientists gave a test group of seven Octopus bimaculoides varying doses of MDMA, they were amazed to see them respond in much the same way a human would. Heavy doses made them turn white, but smaller doses seemed to evoke a sensation known colloquially among ravers as “rolling.” They became touchy-feely with other octopuses, they were interested in minor sounds and smells, one started doing flips, and one “looked like it was doing water ballet,” Dölen told Gizmodo.

Dölen and Edsinger said they were astonished – as were their peers in the world of biology, who said they never imagined a monoamine neurotransmitter could have the same effect on a vastly different animal brain structure.

In her recent New York Times Bestseller, The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery elucidated the world on the truly sentient nature of octopuses. Unbeknownst to many, octopuses are in fact highly aware, as each of their tentacles has its own complicated network of neurons, allowing for eight independently functioning limbs of taste, touch, and motor function. Add to that a massive brain, proportionate to its size, and you get one of the most intelligent creatures in the ocean.

MDMA is a schedule 1 substance in the U.S., meaning it has a high potential for abuse and low potential for medical application. However, this antiquated and misunderstood classification is slowly being reconsidered, as groups like MAPS have had success with clinical trials using it as a tool for psychotherapy.

This recent study could inform scientists on the way our brains have developed over the millions of years of evolution since splitting from cephalopods, in order to better understand social disorders, such as PTSD and autistic social anxiety.

And unlike other trials that involve animal testing, this seems like one the octopuses might actually enjoy.

 

Watch the feature documentary Neurons to Nirvana, which explores the resurgence of psychedelics as medicine in modern society:



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Artificial Intelligence Finds Missing Ghost Ancestor of Humans

Our ancestry as a species is intricate and convoluted. We know that Denisovans, Neanderthals, and the other iterations of our hominin ancestors interbred and evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. But while anthropologists have done their best to map out this complicated lineage, we’ve now reached a point in our evolution that machines can map our genealogy better than we can. Such was the case when a machine learning algorithm applied to our DNA roadmap found a new ancestor we didn’t even know existed.

According to a study published in Nature Communications, scientists fed DNA data from fossilized bones and modern humans into an A.I. algorithm that computed thousands of timelines to map out the possible evolutionary pathways based on what we know – or what we think we know – about our ancestors migrations, diasporas, and interbreeding to tell us if we were missing anything.

It turns out we were…

The new study found that a missing, archaic “ghost” ancestor played a significant role in the development of the human species, helping to propel us from primitive hominins to the highly intelligent beings we are today.

This ancestor was likely a hybrid of Neanderthals and the Denisovans – the hominin ancestor discovered in 2010, that five percent of modern humans can still directly trace their genealogy through.

And though the study’s authors are referring to this hominin hybrid as a “ghost” population, they also believe there might be fossil evidence of it found in the bones of a 90,000-year-old specimen of a teenage girl discovered in Siberia’s Denisova cave – the location where the original Denisovan fossils were found.

The discovery of the Denisovans has presented itself as one of the most profound and baffling finds for archeologists within the past decade as their fossil remains showed they existed for millennia alongside our other ancestors. Not to mention they appear to have been massive in comparison to other hominin species.

And by massive, they mean that a Denisovan wisdom tooth found in the cave was originally mistaken for that of a bear’s. And though wisdom teeth can vary in size, the anthropologist studying the specimen, Bence Viola, told National Geographic, “large teeth with massive roots would probably require massive jaws.”

Who were these gigantic Denisovans whom we know so little about, and even more baffling, what did their hybrid progeny with Neanderthal’s look like? These paradigm-shifting discoveries only add to the fact that we still have so much more to learn about our species’ history.

 

For more on the strange discovery of the gigantic Denisovans check out this episode of Ancient Civilizations :

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