Henry quoted in Smithsonian magazine


Keith Henry, PhD, associate professor in UND’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, was contacted recently by Smithsonian magazine for comment on an article detailing a research study which treated a strongly asocial species of octopuses with the “club drug” Ecstasy or methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA).

In the study, which was not conducted at UND, MDMA was added to the tanks of a group of octopuses, whose behavior was then compared to a non-MDMA treated control group of animals. The results revealed that MDMA induced strong prosocial behaviors in these normally solitary cephalopods whereas the untreated animals retained their aversion to interaction with other octopuses and novel objects.

Henry was contacted due to his work on uncovering how MDMA interacts with its cellular target, the serotonin transporter, as well as his research on five naturally occurring mutations of the human serotonin transporter, which are strongly associated with social aversion aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

MDMA floods the brain with serotonin, a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter that regulates social behavior in humans as well as feelings of happiness and well-being. Cephalopods aside, other recent studies with MDMA have demonstrated that clinical administration of the chemical is highly effective in ameliorating a variety of mental health disorders, including PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

“By studying ecstasy’s effects on octopuses, the [research] team realized something that they didn’t expect—the same genetic and neurological infrastructure that’s linked to prosocial behavior in humans is also present in other organisms,” writes the article’s author Rachael Lallensack. “The genetic connection between [cephalopods and humans] is particularly relevant because MDMA has recently been praised as ‘breakthrough therapy’ in clinical trials, used alongside additional therapeutic treatments to combat conditions like PTSD. Serotonin signaling also has a clear association with many aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder, such as aberrant social behaviors, and some social anxiety disorders. Having a known animal model for future testing could be a major boon to neurological researchers working to address these disorders, Henry says.”

The Smithsonian article can be found online here and the full research study can be found in the October 8, 2018, edition of Current Biology.