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The mood-altering drug known as ecstasy can make people feel more loving toward others, and researchers now say it has a similar effect on octopuses. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has been diving into this important story.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Octopuses are bizarre, almost like aliens. They're related to slugs but have a huge, complex brain that looks nothing like ours. And except when mating, they are notably unfriendly to other octopuses.
GUL DOLEN: Of the 300 or so estimated species of octopus, there's maybe one or two that are social, and all the rest are asocial.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Gul Dolen is a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University who's studied the drug ecstasy or MDMA. It targets a brain protein that seems to be almost identical in humans and in octopuses. So she and a colleague named Eric Edsinger gave the drug to octopuses to see if it would make the animals more social.
DOLEN: And what we did is we put that MDMA in a beaker that had a known volume of seawater in it. And then we put the octopus inside of that beaker and just let it sit there for 10 minutes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then they put the octopus into a tank. Also in that tank was another octopus that was confined to a cage - well, really an upside-down flower pot with holes in it. Octopuses would ordinarily stay far away from the imprisoned stranger, but not so on ecstasy.
DOLEN: First of all, they spent significantly more time in the side of the tank, the chamber, that had the other octopus in it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Without the drug, octopuses acted reserved and aloof and might only reach out one of their eight arms to touch the cooped up animal.
DOLEN: Whereas after MDMA, they were essentially hugging the flower pot that had the other octopus in it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And they just seemed relaxed. The findings, in the journal Current Biology, stunned other researchers. Judit Pungor studies octopuses at the University of Oregon. She says octopuses have a very different, doughnut-shaped brain...
JUDIT PUNGOR: That has absolutely no business acting like ours does, but here they show that it does.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: At least, it seems to. Zachary Mainen is a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown in Portugal.
ZACHARY MAINEN: Is it really affection? How would we know? So it's really - it's totally fascinating.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it shows that some of our biological systems for social behavior must go way, way back because humans and octopuses are separated by more than 500 million years of evolution.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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