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A New Spin on the Quantum Brain

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Jennifer Ouelette reports in Quanta:

The mere mention of “quantum consciousness” makes most physicists cringe, as the phrase seems to evoke the vague, insipid musings of a New Age guru. But if a new hypothesis proves to be correct, quantum effects might indeed play some role in human cognition. Matthew Fisher, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, raised eyebrows late last year when he published a paper in Annals of Physics proposing that the nuclear spins of phosphorus atoms could serve as rudimentary “qubits” in the brain — which would essentially enable the brain to function like a quantum computer.

As recently as 10 years ago, Fisher’s hypothesis would have been dismissed by many as nonsense. Physicists have been burned by this sort of thing before, most notably in 1989, when Roger Penrose proposed that mysterious protein structures called “microtubules” played a role in human consciousness by exploiting quantum effects. Few researchers believe such a hypothesis plausible. Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California, San Diego, memorably opined that one might as well invoke “pixie dust in the synapses” to explain human cognition.

Fisher’s hypothesis faces the same daunting obstacle that has plagued microtubules: a phenomenon called quantum decoherence. To build an operating quantum computer, you need to connect qubits — quantum bits of information — in a process called entanglement. But entangled qubits exist in a fragile state. They must be carefully shielded from any noise in the surrounding environment. Just one photon bumping into your qubit would be enough to make the entire system “decohere,” destroying the entanglement and wiping out the quantum properties of the system. It’s challenging enough to do quantum processing in a carefully controlled laboratory environment, never mind the warm, wet, complicated mess that is human biology, where maintaining coherence for sufficiently long periods of time is well nigh impossible.

Over the past decade, however, growing evidence suggests that certain biological systems might employ quantum mechanics. In photosynthesis, for example, quantum effects help plants turn sunlight into fuel. Scientists have also proposed that migratory birds have a “quantum compass” enabling them to exploit Earth’s magnetic fields for navigation, or that the human sense of smell could be rooted in quantum mechanics.

Fisher’s notion of quantum processing in the brain broadly fits into this emerging field of quantum biology. Call it quantum neuroscience. He has developed a complicated hypothesis, incorporating nuclear and quantum physics, organic chemistry, neuroscience and biology. While his ideas have met with plenty of justifiable skepticism, some researchers are starting to pay attention. “Those who read his paper (as I hope many will) are bound to conclude: This old guy’s not so crazy,” wrote John Preskill, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology, after Fisher gave a talk there. “He may be on to something. At least he’s raising some very interesting questions.”

Senthil Todadri, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Fisher’s longtime friend and colleague, is skeptical, but he thinks that Fisher has rephrased the central question — is quantum processing happening in the brain? — in such a way that it lays out a road map to test the hypothesis rigorously. “The general assumption has been that of course there is no quantum information processing that’s possible in the brain,” Todadri said. “He makes the case that there’s precisely one loophole. So the next step is to see if that loophole can be closed.” Indeed, Fisher has begun to bring together a team to do laboratory tests to answer this question once and for all.

Finding the Spin

Fisher belongs to something of a physics dynasty: His father, Michael E. Fisher, is a prominent physicist at the University of Maryland, College Park, whose work in statistical physics has garnered numerous honors and awards over the course of his career. His brother, Daniel Fisher, is an applied physicist at Stanford University who specializes in evolutionary dynamics. Matthew Fisher has followed in their footsteps, carving out a highly successful physics career. He shared the prestigious Oliver E. Buckley Prize in 2015 for his research on quantum phase transitions.

So what drove him to move away from mainstream physics and toward the controversial and notoriously messy interface of biology, chemistry, neuroscience and quantum physics? His own struggles with clinical depression.

Fisher vividly remembers that February 1986 day when he woke up feeling numb and jet-lagged, as if he hadn’t slept in a week. “I felt like I had been drugged,” he said. Extra sleep didn’t help. Adjusting his diet and exercise regime proved futile, and blood tests showed nothing amiss. But his condition persisted for two full years. “It felt like a migraine headache over my entire body every waking minute,” he said. It got so bad he contemplated suicide, although the birth of his first daughter gave him a reason to keep fighting through the fog of depression.

Eventually he found a psychiatrist who prescribed a tricyclic antidepressant, and within three weeks his mental state started to lift. “The metaphorical fog that had so enshrouded me that I couldn’t even see the sun — that cloud was a little less dense, and I saw there was a light behind it,” Fisher said. Within nine months he felt reborn, despite some significant side effects from the medication, including soaring blood pressure. He later switched to Prozac and has continuously monitored and tweaked his specific drug regimen ever since.

His experience convinced him that the drugs worked. But Fisher was surprised to discover that neuroscientists understand little about the precise mechanisms behind how they work. That aroused his curiosity, and given his expertise in quantum mechanics, he found himself pondering the possibility of quantum processing in the brain. Five years ago he threw himself into learning more about the subject, drawing on his own experience with antidepressants as a starting point.

Since nearly all psychiatric medications are complicated molecules, he focused on one of the most simple, lithium, which is just one atom — a spherical cow, so to speak, that would be an easier model to study than Prozac, for instance. The analogy is particularly appropriate because a lithium atom is a sphere of electrons surrounding the nucleus, Fisher said. He zeroed in on the fact that the lithium available by prescription from your local pharmacy is mostly a common isotope called lithium-7. Would a different isotope, like the much more rare lithium-6, produce the same results? In theory it should, since the two isotopes are chemically identical. They differ only in the number of neutrons in the nucleus.

When Fisher searched the literature, he found that an experiment comparing the effects of lithium-6 and lithium-7 had been done. In 1986, scientists at Cornell University examined the effects of the two isotopes on the behavior of rats. Pregnant rats were separated into three groups: One group was given lithium-7, one group was given the isotope lithium-6, and the third served as the control group. Once the pups were born, the mother rats that received lithium-6 showed much stronger maternal behaviors, such as grooming, nursing and nest-building, than the rats in either the lithium-7 or control groups.

This floored Fisher. Not only should the chemistry of the two isotopes be the same, the slight difference in atomic mass largely washes out in the watery environment of the body. So what could account for the differences in behavior those researchers observed?

Fisher believes the secret might lie in the nuclear spin, which is a quantum property that affects how long each atom can remain coherent — that is, isolated from its environment. The lower the spin, the less the nucleus interacts with electric and magnetic fields, and the less quickly it decoheres.

Because lithium-7 and lithium-6 have different numbers of neutrons, they also have different spins. As a result, lithium-7 decoheres too quickly for the purposes of quantum cognition, while lithium-6 can remain entangled longer.

Fisher had found two substances, alike in all important respects save for quantum spin, and found that they could have very different effects on behavior. For Fisher, this was a tantalizing hint that quantum processes might indeed play a functional role in cognitive processing.

Quantum Protection Scheme

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Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 November 2016 at 12:33 pm

Posted in Science

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