As part of ongoing work to realize the full potential of quantum computing, perhaps scientists could try peering into our own brains to see what’s possible: a new study suggests the brain actually has a lot in common with a quantum computer.
The results could tell us a lot about the functions of neurons as well as the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. The research could explain, for example, why our brains are always able to outperform supercomputers in certain tasks, such as making decisions or learning new information.
As with much quantum computing research, the study examines the idea of entanglement – two separate particles being in states that are bound together
“We adapted an idea, developed for experiments to prove the existence of quantum gravity, where you take known quantum systems, which interact with an unknown system,” says physicist Christian Kerskens from the University of Dublin. .
“If known systems intertwine, then the unknown must also be a quantum system. It circumvents the difficulties of finding measuring devices for something we know nothing about.”
In other words, the entanglement or relationship between the known systems can only occur if the mediating system in the middle – the unknown system – is also functioning on a quantum level. Although the unknown system cannot be studied directly, its effects can be observed, as with quantum gravity.
For the purposes of this research, proton spins from “brain water” (the fluid that accumulates in the brain) act as the known system, with custom magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans used to non-invasively measure proton activity. The spin of a particle, which determines its magnetic and electrical properties, is a property of quantum mechanics.
Using this technique, the researchers were able to see signals resembling heartbeat-evoked potentials, which are a type of electroencephalography (EEG) signal. These signals are not normally detectable by MRI, and are thought to have arisen because the nuclear proton spins in the brain were entangled.
The observations recorded by the team require verification via confirmation via future studies in several scientific fields, but the first results seem promising for non-classical quantum events in the human brain when it is active.
“If entanglement is the only possible explanation here, that would mean that brain processes must have interacted with nuclear spins, mediating the entanglement between nuclear spins,” Kerskens explains.
“As a result, we can deduce that these brain functions must be quantum.”
The brain functions that informed the MRI readings were also associated with short-term memory and conscious awareness, suggesting that quantum processes – if that’s what they are – play a crucial role in cognition and consciousness, suggests Kerskens.
What researchers need to do next is learn more about this unknown quantum system in the brain – and then we might fully understand how the quantum computer we carry inside our heads works.
“Our experiments, performed just 50 meters from the amphitheater where Schrödinger presented his famous thoughts on life, can illuminate mysteries of biology and of consciousness that are scientifically even harder to grasp,” Kerskens says.
The research was published in the Physical Communications Journal.
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