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By studying the genome of an octopus species not known for its sympathy towards its peers, and then testing its behavioral reaction to a popular drug that alters the state of mind called MDMA or “ecstasy,” scientists say they have found preliminary evidence of an evolutionary link between social behaviours of the marine creature and humans, species separated by 500 million years in the evolutionary tree.
If the findings of these experiments are validated – which are detailed in an article published today in the journal ‘Current Biology’ -, the researchers say, they can open opportunities to study with precision the impact of psychiatric drug therapies in many animals that relate distantly with people.
“The brains of octopuses are more similar to those of snails than humans, but our studies add to the evidence that they can exhibit some of the same behaviours that we do – says the main researcher of this work, Gül Dölen, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore, Maryland, United States … What our studies suggest is that certain brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that send signals between neurons needed for these social behaviours are evolutionarily preserved “.
Octopuses, says Dölen, are known to be intelligent creatures since they can trick prey into their clutches and there is some evidence that they also learn by observation and have episodic memory. Gelatinous invertebrates (animals without spinal column) are well known for running away from their tank, eating other animals’ food, eluding caretakers and sneaking out.
But most octopuses are asocial animals and avoid others, including other octopuses. But due to some of his behaviours, Dölen still thought there might be a link between the genetics that guides social behaviour in them and in humans. One place to look was in the genomics that guides neurotransmitters, the signals that neurons transmit to each other to communicate.
Dölen and Eric Edsinger, a researcher at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, United States, closely observed the genomic sequence of ‘Octopus bimaculoides’, commonly known as the California spotted octopus.
ALMOST IDENTICAL GENOMIC CODES OF PULP AND HUMAN FOR A CARRIER
Specifically, in regions of genes that control how neurons connect neurotransmitters to their membrane, Dölen and Edsinger discovered that octopuses and humans had almost identical genomic codes for the transporter that binds the neurotransmitter serotonin to the neuron’s membrane. Serotonin is a known regulator of mood and is closely related to certain types of depression.
It is also known that the serotonin binding transporter is the place where the MDMA drug binds to the brain cells and alters mood. Then, the researchers set out to see if and how the octopuses react to the drug, which also produces the so-called pro-social behaviours in humans, mice and other vertebrates.
Dölen designed an experiment with three water tanks connected: one empty, one with a plastic action figure under a cage and another with an octopus raised in the laboratory, female or male, under a cage.
Four males and females were exposed to MDMA by placing them in a beaker containing a liquefied version of the drug, which the octopi absorb through their gills. Then, they were placed in the experimental chambers for 30 minutes. The four tended to spend more time in the chamber where a male octopus was caged than the other two chambers.
“It’s not just quantitatively more time, it’s qualitative, they tended to hug the cage and put their mouthparts in the cage,” Dölen says. This is very similar to how humans react to MDMA, they touch each other frequently. ” Under normal conditions, without MDMA, five male and female octopuses avoided only caged male octopuses.
Dölen says that the experiments suggest that the brain circuits that guide social behaviour in octopi are present under normal conditions, but can be suppressed by natural or other circumstances. “The octopuses suspend their antisocial behaviour for mating, for example, and then, when they finish mating, they go into an asocial and aggressive mode,” explains Dolen.
However, this researcher warns that the results of the work are preliminary and need to be replicated and affirmed in future experiments before octopuses can be used as models for brain research.