Wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in my mind?

I suppose most theoretical physicists who (like me) are comfortably past the age of 60 worry about their susceptibility to “crazy-old-guy syndrome.” (Sorry for the sexism, but all the victims of this malady I know are guys.) It can be sad when a formerly great scientist falls far out of the mainstream and seems to be spouting nonsense.

Matthew Fisher is only 55, but reluctance to be seen as a crazy old guy might partially explain why he has kept pretty quiet about his passionate pursuit of neuroscience over the past three years. That changed two months ago when he posted a paper on the arXiv about Quantum Cognition.

Neuroscience has a very seductive pull, because it is at once very accessible and very inaccessible. While a theoretical physicist might think and write about a brane even without having or seeing a brane, everybody’s got a brain (some scarecrows excepted). On the other hand, while it’s not too hard to write down and study the equations that describe a brane, it is not at all easy to write down the equations for a brain, let alone solve them. The brain is fascinating because we know so little about it. And … how can anyone with a healthy appreciation for Gödel’s Theorem not be intrigued by the very idea of a brain that thinks about itself?

(Almost) everybody's got a brain.

(Almost) everybody’s got a brain.

The idea that quantum effects could have an important role in brain function is not new, but is routinely dismissed as wildly implausible. Matthew Fisher begs to differ. And those who read his paper (as I hope many will) are bound to conclude: This old guy’s not so crazy. He may be onto something. At least he’s raising some very interesting questions.

My appreciation for Matthew and his paper was heightened further this Wednesday, when Matthew stopped by Caltech for a lunch-time seminar and one of my interminable dinner-time group meetings. I don’t know whether my brain is performing quantum information processing (and neither does Matthew), but just the thought that it might be is lighting me up like a zebrafish.

Following Matthew, let’s take a deep breath and ask ourselves: What would need to be true for quantum information processing to be important in the brain? Presumably we would need ways to (1) store quantum information for a long time, (2) transport quantum information, (3) create entanglement, and (4) have entanglement influence the firing of neurons. After a three-year quest, Matthew has interesting things to say about all of these issues. For details, you should read the paper.

Matthew argues that the only plausible repositories for quantum information in the brain are the Phosphorus-31 nuclear spins in phosphate ions. Because these nuclei are spin-1/2, they have no electric quadrupole moments and hence corresponding long coherence times — of order a second. That may not be long enough, but phosphate ions can be bound with calcium ions into objects called Posner clusters, each containing six P-31 nuclei. The phosphorus nuclei in Posner clusters might have coherence times greatly enhanced by motional narrowing, perhaps as long as weeks or even longer.

Where energy is being consumed in a cell, ATP sometimes releases diphosphate ions (what biochemists call pyrophosphate), which are later broken into two separate phosphate ions, each with a single P-31 qubit. Matthew argues that the breakup of the diphosphate, catalyzed by a suitable enzyme, will occur at an enhanced rate when these two P-31 qubits are in a spin singlet rather than a spin triplet. The reason is that the enzyme has to grab ahold of the diphosphate molecule and stop its rotation in order to break it apart, which is much easier when the molecule has even rather than odd orbital angular momentum; therefore due to Fermi statistics the spin state of the P-31 nuclei must be antisymmetric. Thus wherever ATP is consumed there is a plentiful source of entangled qubit pairs.

If the phosphate molecules remain unbound, this entanglement will decay in about a second, but it is a different story if the phosphate ions group together quickly enough into Posner clusters, allowing the entanglement to survive for a much longer time. If the two members of an entangled qubit pair are snatched up by different Posner clusters, the clusters may then be transported into different cells, distributing the entanglement over relatively long distances.

(a) Two entangled Posner clusters. Each dot is a P-31 nuclear spin, and each dashed line represents a singlet pair. (b) Many entangled Posner clusters. [From the paper]

(a) Two entangled Posner clusters. Each dot is a P-31 nuclear spin, and each dashed line represents a singlet pair. (b) Many entangled Posner clusters. [From Fisher 2015]

What causes a neuron to fire is a complicated story that I won’t attempt to wade into. Suffice it to say that part of the story may involve the chemical binding of a pair of Posner clusters which then melt if the environment is sufficiently acidic, releasing calcium ions and phosphate ions which enhance the firing. The melting rate depends on the spin state of the six P-31 nuclei within the cluster, so that entanglement between clusters in different cells may induce nonlocal correlations among different neurons, which could be quite complex if entanglement is widely distributed.

This scenario raises more questions than it answers, but these are definitely scientific questions inviting further investigation and experimental exploration. One thing that is far from clear at this stage is whether such quantum correlations among neurons (if they exist at all) would be easy to simulate with a classical computer. Even if that turns out to be so, these potential quantum effects involving many neurons could be fabulously interesting. IQIM’s mission is to reach for transformative quantum science, particularly approaches that take advantage of synergies between different fields of study. This topic certainly qualifies.* It’s going to be great fun to see where it leads.

If you are a young and ambitious scientist, you may be contemplating the dilemma: Should I pursue quantum physics or neuroscience? Maybe, just maybe, the right answer is: Both.

*Matthew is the only member of the IQIM faculty who is not a Caltech professor, though he once was.