Using Octopuses to Understand Depression

Researchers often use animals to help them resolve problems that can be applied to people. Dr. Jean Boal, a biology professor at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, is developing a new and unique way to research the causes and effects of depression with the help of octopuses. Boal, along with Dr. Anne-Sophie Darmaillacq, a visiting postdoctoral fellow from Universite de Caen in France, is performing behavioral experiments with octopuses. Darmaillacq will be working with Boal through February 16. “Along with biology student, Katherine Heldt, we will be researching the effects different conditions have on the octopuses to gain information on depression,” explained Boal. She explained that the first part of the research will include training the octopuses to distinguish between white and black rods and reward it with food if it goes to one rod and no reward if it goes to the other. Next, for two weeks they will house half the octopuses in enriched conditions and the other half in impoverished conditions and then reverse the housing for another two weeks. “My prediction is that if the octopuses are like rats (or people), the octopuses moved from impoverished to enriched conditions should be ‘happy’ and ‘optimistic,'” said Boal. “The octopuses moved from enriched to impoverished conditions should be ‘sad’ and ‘pessimistic.’ We can test this by presenting them with rods that have black-and-white stripes. Optimistic animals will see the striped rods as like the ones they were rewarded with. Pessimistic animals will see the striped rods as like the ones that had no reward.”

“Darmaillacq’s primary goal is to collaborate with me on these behavioral experiments,” said Boal. “Her secondary goals are perfecting her English and getting to know the United States.”

Boal will be traveling to France this summer to work with Darmaillacq in her home setting. They will conduct the same type of studies, but with cuttlefish instead of octopuses. Along with their student collaborator, they will present the results of their experiments at an international behavior meeting and publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal.