A new spin on neural processing: Quantum cognition

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Although quantum mechanics is fundamental for understanding molecular mechanisms in physics and chemistry, it has usually been assumed to be unimportant for understanding molecular mechanisms of biological systems. However, there is increasing evidence that quantum mechanics is important for understanding some biological phenomena (Lambert et al., 2013), such as energy transfer in photosynthesis (Fassioli et al., 2014), navigation by birds using the earth's magnetic field (Hiscock et al., 2016), and electron and hydrogen tunneling in biochemical reactions (Klinman and Kohen, 2013). There have also been proposals that quantum mechanics may help explain aspects of brain function. Discussions about quantum mechanics and the brain began with questions on the role of measurement or observation in quantum mechanics (Stapp, 1991; Theise and Kafatos, 2013). Further developments began to highlight the possibility that quantum mechanics might help explain neural mechanisms involved in consciousness or synaptic function (Stapp, 1991; Beck and Eccles, 1992). Another topic that emerged was whether quantum mechanisms might be employed by the brain to perform calculations, i.e., the possibility of quantum computing in the brain (Penrose, 1989). For example, a model of consciousness was developed that involves quantum computations in neuronal microtubules (Tegmark, 2000; Penrose and Hameroff, 2011; Hameroff and Penrose, 2014a,b; Reimers et al., 2014; Craddock et al., 2015). Other proposals have focused on the quantum phenomenon of spin (see below). Hu and Wu (2004) suggested that nuclear spins of hydrogen, nitrogen, and phosphorus in neuronal cellular components and electron spins of diffusible oxygen and nitric oxide in the brain might mediate consciousness. Electron spins in the brain have also been suggested as a potential target of transcranial magnetic stimulation therapies (Chervyakov et al., 2015). Other perspectives have led to application of quantum probability theory to human decision making (Wang et al., 2014; Kvam et al., 2015). Finally, the above mentioned navigation by birds may involve a quantum mechanical cryptochrome radical-pair (spin dynamic) mechanism in neuronal retinal ganglion cells that transmit information to the brain (Mouritsen et al., 2004; Hiscock et al., 2016). Recently a new model for how the brain may store and process quantum information has been proposed (Fisher, 2015). The model includes specific biochemical components that could be employed for quantum processing in glutamatergic neurotransmission. It has potential relevance for molecular mechanisms underlying normal neural function, such as glutamatergic dependent neurocognitive systems, as well as psychiatric treatments such as lithium.




Weingarten, C. P., Doraiswamy, P. M., & Fisher, M. P. A. (2016, October 26). A new spin on neural processing: Quantum cognition. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Frontiers Media S. A. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00541

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