For new professor, psychedelics and octopuses may hold keys to the human mind

February 13, 2024

Octopus graphic

Gül Dölen became a scientist because she loved solving puzzles that drew on neuroscience, medicine, biology and philosophy. But a decade ago, her spirits were waning, and a string of funding rejections brought her lab to the brink of folding.

Then came the octopuses, all seven of them, and a curiosity-driven experiment.

Before then, Dölen's team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine had been studying and expanding what was known about how psychedelics could help reopen finite windows of opportunity called "critical periods." These brief openings as the brain develops enable rapid learning, like language in humans. They've been a focus of neuroscience for nearly a century. And when paired with therapy, Dölen believes, these drugs can help treat disorders caused by mental trauma or even strokes.

But her octopus study found something else remarkable: When exposed to water laced with a small amount of MDMA, or ecstasy — a drug that acts as a stimulant and hallucinogen — the otherwise solitary creatures became uncharacteristically social and playful. Vastly different from humans and separated from them by more than 500 million years of evolution, the octopuses responded to ecstasy much like people do.

It was unusual research seen around the world. It also advanced the understanding of how certain brain chemicals, like serotonin, can influence behavior.

"I knew that, whatever the outcome of that experiment, it would have a rejuvenating effect on me as a scientist," Dölen said. "And it did." 

In January, Dölen joined UC Berkeley as the Renee & U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Bob Parsons Endowed Chair in psychology, psychedelics, and neuroscience, where she'll continue her work on the therapeutic potential of MDMA and other drugs. A professor in the Department of Psychology, Dölen has research ties to the campus’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. She is also the senior science advisor at the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics.

Berkeley News spoke with Dölen about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, her ongoing octopus research and her mission to keep the joy in science.


Read about Professor Dölen's research in Berkeley News