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What octopuses and psychedelics teach us about the social brain

Studies of the effects of psychedelic drugs in evolutionarily distant species like octopus, have revealed that these drugs target ancient mechanisms that have been conserved for hundreds of millions of years. We have examined the deep evolution of the SLC6A4 gene family and demonstrated that MDMA, which binds to this transporter, is able to induce prosocial behavior in octopus (Edsinger and Dölen, Current Biology, 2018). A critical period is a developmental epoch during which the nervous system is expressly sensitive to specific stimuli that are required for experience dependent learning, circuit organization, and synaptic plasticity. Our recent mechanistic insights into the establishment and reinstatement of a novel critical period for social reward learning has uncovered a potential breakthrough in our therapeutic approach to neuropsychiatric disease (Nardou, et al., Nature, 2019). Specifically, the psychedelic drug, MDMA, but not the psychostimulant cocaine, is able to reopen the social reward learning critical period.  More recently we have discovered that the ability to reopen the social reward learning critical period is a shared property across psychedelics. Furthermore, the duration of the critical period open state induced by psychedelics corresponds to the durability of their therapeutic effects. These findings have significant implications for the implementation of psychedelics in clinical practice, as well as the design of novel compounds for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disease.  

Dr. Dölen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins.


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Dr. Gul Dolen