Taking Brain Waves to a Whole New Level: Quantum Consciousness and Microtubules

Why are we here? This is certainly humanity’s penultimate question. Even given all the wondrous advances of the human race to date, we are still completely blind to the answer – assuming there is one. People from all walks of life, physicists, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians, psychonauts, neuroscientists, will all give you there views on the matter, but of course, nothing is concrete. Regardless, undertaking the ultimate quest for knowledge certainly speaks volumes about the character of the human race. I’m not here to venture an answer to the question, but keeping in step with the topic, I will discuss a controversial theory of mind, in the hopes of continuing a conversation, on the how are we here question.

This brings me to one of the major unanswered questions in cognitive science, “the hard problem of consciousness”, which is by no means a misnomer; in short it aims to answer the question of how our physiology is able to give rise to the complex, highly subjective experience that is our conscious awareness and expression. As one can imagine, this question can be approached from a whole suite of different perspectives and has peaked great minds from all walks of life; from here on out, I aim to focus solely on two of these great minds. In the mid- 1990s, Sir Roger Penrose, a brilliant (understatement) mathematical physicist, and Stuart Hameroff, a prominent anesthesiologist, jointly put forth a very controversial theory aiming to elucidate the hard problem of consciousness. Penrose, having a strong interest in the underpinnings of the brain, aimed to build a quantum mechanical model for its functioning, but having limited knowledge in the field of biology, he was unsure about what structures in the brain would give rise to these properties. Stuart Hameroff, also deeply interested in cognitive neuroscience, was intrigued by the observation that general anesthetics were found to bind inside neural microtubules in the brain. Joining forces, Penrose and Hameroff started to build a model of consciousness stemming from quantum processes inside microtubules.

So, what are microtubules? They are long polymers of tubulin protein that are found inside every cell of your body. Generally they are responsible for maintaining cell shape, helping segregate chromosomes during cellular division, and function as highways for motor proteins that transport materials throughout a cell. Microtubules are highly dynamic, meaning that they are constantly elongating and shrinking depending on the job at hand; however, in neurons, microtubules form incredibly intricate lattices that stretch from the dendrites all the way down the axon to the terminus of the cell. Given that neurons rarely (if ever) undergo cellular division, these microtubule lattices remain quite constant throughout the life of an organism.

If we shrink ourselves down to the size of these microtubules and look at the specific proteins from which they’re assembled, the first thing you’ll likely notice is that they arrange in such a way as to form a hollow tube. If you were to take out your trusty magnifying glass and peer down this tube, you’d be able to observe arrays of aromatic amino acids (phenylalanine, tyrosine, and my favourite, tryptophan) that line the walls inside. The keen observer would note that these small molecules orient themselves in such a way that their flat, electron-rich, surfaces stack almost perfectly on top of one another’s. Throwing away your magnifying glass and taking out your quantum microscope – assuming you live in a futuristic society -, you might just notice something very bizarre happening; every now and then, to the keen observer, the stacks might shift slightly before reforming their original conformation. According to Penrose and Hameroff’s theory of Orchestrated-Objective Reduction, what you may have just seen is a quantum computation taking place between entangled electrons (synchronization of properties) of the stacked molecules. They postulate that quantum vibrations or the wave-like properties (similar to what was discussed in my previous blog post) of microtubules in neuronal lattices allow for synchronized quantum calculations to take place. According to Penrose, these computations occur as a direct resultant of the fundamental geometry of our universe; this means, according to their model, microtubules in any living entity can essentially read information (proto-consciousness) that’s ingrained in the fabric of our reality and systematically organize that information in neural circuits to generate consciousness). Wow.

So, how far out is this theory? Well, as it turns out, based on current research by Dr. Bandyopadhyay’s group at MIT, not very. They were able to detect quantum vibrations in microtubules at physiological temperature predicted by Orch-OR. Not only were these vibrations characteristic of the proposed model, they were also characteristic of another long observed phenomenon: brain waves. Electroencephalography (EEG) is used to measure activity in an active brain, and is observed as waves of electrical output. It has long been shown that different frequency waves are characteristic of different states of consciousness (sleep, anxiety, anger, happiness, intense thought etc.); however, the mechanism of their generation is unknown. The really intriguing observation that Bandyopadhyay’s group documented is that the vibrational frequencies of microtubules match the brain waves characteristic of an EEG output; I for one, don’t believe in coincidence.

Penrose and Hameroff go beyond proposing an actual mechanism for the accumulation of consciousness, and also comment extensively on the ability for information to be encoded within the structure of a microtubule. There is a known enzyme in the human body called calcium calmondulinkinase that’s responsible for the phosphorylation of tubulin (the protein that makes up microtubules). As phosphorylation generally results in a conformational change of a protein, they predict that different patterns of phosphorylation across the surface of a microtubule could allow for alteration of the specific interactions between aromatic amino acids within their cores. If this turns out to be true, then different phosphorylation states of tubulin could encode and store information in a similar way to how the computer you’re using encodes information by orientation of magnetic fields in its hardware; this gives rise to a mechanism for the storage of memories – currently a very poorly understood phenomenon. To lend credence to this, in Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by loss of memory, neural microtubules have been observed to undergo systematic deconstruction; could this help explain the loss of memory?

In the two decades since its birth, Orch-OR as faced countless critics; however, during this time, the scientific foundation upon which it stands has only strengthened. With the discovery of quantum vibrations in microtubules, even the harshest of critics are beginning to acknowledge (at a painfully slow rate) that Penrose and Hameroff might just be onto something. Like I voiced in my first blog post, part of the beauty of science lies in the ability for a long standing paradigm to be shattered by new elegant experimentation or with the simplest observation; maybe the discovery of quantum vibrations in microtubules will be the nudge our understanding needs to make a leap towards answering the biggest of questions: why are we here?

Yours truly,

A moderately-inspired science student.


Watch Your Step: Things Aren’t as Solid as They Seem

Imagine for a second that you’re standing on the edge of a calm, serene lake. You look down and notice the perfect skipping stone sitting at your feet. You quickly grab it and using your perfect technique launch it out over the water. You wait in anticipation for it to caress the surface and perpetuate onward; however, as soon as the stone contacts the water – it disappears into a wave that quickly spreads. Assuming it just crashed to the bottom of the lake, you disappointedly get ready to turn and leave when all of the sudden the rock comes flying out of the water and again disappears into a wave a few feet away. You’re mystified, but it does it again, and again. You then sit down, distraught, and reevaluate your whole life.

Part of the beauty of science lies in the ability for a long standing paradigm to be shattered by new elegant experimentation or with the simplest observation. This has been a long-standing tradition throughout the history of the scientific endeavor and continues up to our present day. With each new discovery and shift in our perception of the world around and within us, we obtain an ever-deeper respect and understanding for the inherent complexity that can be found at every level of existence. With this in mind, I’ll now attempt to navigate the waters of one of the newest paradigm shifts slowly blossoming within the scientific community: the transition from classical biology to quantum biology.

In order to take this quantum leap, it’s important to have a grasp on some differences between classical physics – the physics that seems to govern how we interact with our environment on a daily basis – and quantum physics – the bizarre physics that governs the world of the unthinkably small. Of most importance to us in our discussion of quantum biology is that at very small scales – generally that of atoms and the particles that make them up – the solid world we are so accustomed to living in completely breaks down into an expanse where everything seems to behave, not as small chunks of matter but, as ever vibrating waves of energy. As bizarre as a world where nothing is solid might sound, I can assure you, it only gets weirder. In the realm of mind-bendingly small oscillations, the building blocks of our existence constantly interact and, through their intimate embrace, entangle their properties together. What exactly does this allow them to accomplish? Well, for one, it affords them the capability to do what Einstein deemed the impossible – transmit information instantaneously across space (MUCH faster than his cosmic speed limit imposed by Relativity).

Now for the paradigm shift, which comes in two parts. The strange properties of the very small described above have long been considered irrelevant to the biological processes that govern life on Earth – a very naïve conclusion as, logically, if our world is most fundamentally quantum in nature, as it certainly seems to be, surely any living entity to evolve within that world would exploit such phenomenon, but more on that later – and only thought to exist at temperatures far below anything conducive to supporting life. To go along with that first consideration – the need for extremely cold environment – physicists have long held the view that large organic molecules – such as those that make up the cells in your body – were frankly too big to exhibit any sustained wave-like behavior, also known as quantum coherence. Well, this was at least the case until 2011 when a group of researchers from Austria published a paper in, the well- respected scientific journal, Nature entitled “Quantum Interference of Large Organic Molecules”, within which they were able to fire streams of these compounds through a laser and observe a wave-like interference pattern on a detector – the impossible turns possible. However, that breakthrough didn’t resolve the need for extremely cold environments to demonstrate quantum behavior. Fast forward to present day. Our newest champions for quantum biology are actually a group of astrophysicists – scientists who generally spend their time gazing out into the vast expanses of space – who have turned their focus inward and for the first time unambiguously proven that the process of photosynthesis, used by plants everywhere in the warm world to harvest light energy for use in generating chemical energy, is governed, not by classical physics as has long been assumed, but certainly by quantum processes. This is a huge breakthrough in our understanding of the world, as it demonstrates, without a doubt, that the bizarre, vibrational, intimately-interconnected world of quantum mechanics is more than at home in the wet, warm, and noisy world of biology. And, I can’t stress enough, this has the potential to reshape our entire view point from which scientists approach topics in biology, well, at least for those brave enough to pioneer out into these uncharted waters.

To put things simply, photosynthesis involves large organic molecules (chromophores such as chlorophylls) harvesting light energy and transmitting it through specialized internal structures that ultimately use that energy to produce nutrients for the cell. The classical description of this process viewed these chormophores as solid structures that passed quasi-solid particles of energy, from one of these pigments to the next ultimately terminating with the reduction of a reaction center. The new way of viewing this process, which was elucidated by observing and measuring this process in a photosynthetic bacterium, involves a much more elegant, and might I say, beautiful shift in understanding. The essence of the process can be understood by imagining the chromophores and the particles of energy they absorb, not as solid molecular structures, but as more of rapidly vibrating, wavy structures.

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When this oscillating molecule absorbs energy from a light source, it’s pattern of vibration or wave function can survey the surrounding area for the next molecule in the chain of events, and then after recognizing its vibrational signature allow for a particle of energy to be produced that hops to the next structure. So instead of the particle wasting time hoping from one place to the other at random, this behavior allows for the essentially instantaneous determination of the correct pathway. This results in a drastic increase in both speed and efficiency of this light harvesting process.

As with the majority of advances in science, the new findings tend to build on or modify the preexisting paradigm rather than tear down the original framework. This is also the case in terms of the new advances into quantum biology; however, in order to fully understand the microscopic processes being investigated, one has to adopt a brand new way of thinking about these things, as they have no descriptions in classical physics. As seen around the time when Albert Einstein first unveiled both Special and General Relativity, it takes the general scientific community more than a generation before the new ideas are fully adopted. Even some of history’s greatest scientist, such as Einstein himself, have a difficult time adopting a new paradigm (in his case it was quantum mechanics). Since history tends to repeat itself, quantum biology will likely struggle to make it into mainstream science, especially considering its high level of complexity, but as with all evidence based research, it’s only a matter of time before the facts win out and a new paradigm is fully accepted by the community at large.

From here on out, I’d like to take this basic introduction into quantum biology and stretch the known boundaries of science and use this newfound knowledge to discuss some long-controversial theories of consciousness. The implications of this new way of thinking are likely to be far reaching in scope. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I still think the most amazing discoveries in science are yet to come.

Until next time,

A moderately-inspired science student.

Allow Me To Introduce Myself…

Our world is a pretty bizarre place even on the most average of days, and I can assure you it’s only getting weirder… From light harvesting in plants, to bird migration, human senses, all the way to processes long considered science fiction, scientists are beginning to elegantly merge the bizarre happenings of the quantum world – long considered separate from our own daily world – with the most fundamental biological processes currently known. 

From here on out, my goal is to integrate my background in bio-chemical processes with my passion for physics and neuroscience in an attempt to communicate the advances in the blossoming field which is Quantum Biology and to explore its far reaching implications. 

A warning to the reader. I have a fascination – many consider it an obsession – with uncovering the fundamental processes that make up our conscious experience. How the hell does our molecular physiology give rise to the amazing subjective experiences that make up our personal world from the moment we wake, until the moment we fall asleep – don’t even getting me started on sleep…

Our ride is going to begin within the realm of concrete, peer-reviewed science, but be prepared, we will be using this strong foundation as a jumping off point for our quantum leap to the more controversial – increasingly valid – frontiers of science attempting to solve the hard problem of consciousness.

Should you only take away one thing from my rants, I hope you’re able to consider the idea that there is more to our world than what currently meets the eye. 

“All phenomena are real in some sense, unreal in some sense, meaningless in some sense, real and meaningless in some sense, unreal and meaningless in some sense, and real and unreal and meaningless in some sense.”

Robert Anton Wilson


A moderately-inspired science student