The recent discovery of quantum vibrations inside neurons in the brain supports a controversial theory of consciousness. If this theory proves to be correct, we may view the brain as operating in a quantum environment, and better understand consciousness.
Recent evidence, though, from researchers led by Anirban Bandyopadhyay, PhD, at the National Institute of Material Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan (and now at MIT), and published in the journal Physics of Life Reviews has found the proposed quantum vibrations inside microtubules within brain neurons. These microtubules are components of cell scaffolding–they help provide our cells with their structure–that are around 25µm in length. In addition, work from the laboratory of Roderick G. Eckenhoff, MD, at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that anesthesia, which selectively erases consciousness while sparing non-conscious brain activities, acts via microtubules in brain neurons.
If correct, it might lead to new treatments for many different conditions, it is claimed in a new review of the evidence by Hameroff and Penrose (2013). The theory–which implies the brain is connected to the universe at a quantum level–was first proposed in the 1990s, but it suffered extensive criticism. One major argument against the theory was that the brain was thought to be too “warm, wet and noisy” for coherent quantum processes.
Other research has also found evidence of quantum coherence in living cells. It has been found in our sense of smell, in the parts of bird’s brains responsible for navigation and in plant photosynthesis. Hameroff and Penrose explain that their theory suggests “consciousness derives from quantum vibrations in microtubules, protein polymers inside brain neurons, which both govern neuronal and synaptic function, and connect brain processes to self-organizing processes in the fine scale, ‘proto-conscious’ quantum structure of reality.” They claim that their theory is the most rigorous, comprehensive and successfully-tested theory of consciousness ever put forth. From a practical standpoint, treating brain microtubule vibrations could benefit a host of mental, neurological, and cognitive conditions.”
They also think that the electrical ‘brain waves’ which can be detected by an EEG machine could be a result of these deeper level microtubule vibrations.
The restatement of the theory has produced a flurry of criticism in the journal where it was published, , but the authors maintain that their theory suggests “conscious experience is intrinsically connected to the fine-scale structure of space–time geometry, and that consciousness could be deeply related to the operation of the laws of the universe.”
“The origin of consciousness reflects our place in the universe, the nature of our existence. Did consciousness evolve from complex computations among brain neurons, as most scientists assert? Or has consciousness, in some sense, been here all along, as spiritual approaches maintain?” ask Hameroff and Penrose in the current review, “this opens a potential Pandora’s Box, but our theory accommodates both these views, suggesting consciousness derives from quantum vibrations in microtubules, protein polymers inside brain neurons, which both govern neuronal and synaptic function, and connect brain processes to self-organizing processes in the fine scale, ‘proto-conscious’ quantum structure of reality.”
An important new facet of the theory is introduced. Microtubule quantum vibrations (e.g. in megahertz) appear to interfere and produce much slower EEG “beat frequencies.” Despite a century of clinical use, the underlying origins of EEG rhythms have remained a mystery. Clinical trials of brief brain stimulation aimed at microtubule resonances with megahertz mechanical vibrations using transcranial ultrasound have shown reported improvements in mood, and may prove useful against Alzheimer’s disease and brain injury in the future.
Other Journal References:
1. Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose. Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory. Physics of Life Reviews, 2013 DOI: 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.08.002
2. Stuart Hameroff, MD, and Roger Penrose. Reply to criticism of the ‘Orch OR qubit’–‘Orchestrated objective reduction’ is scientifically justified. Physics of Life Reviews, 2013 DOI: 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.11.00
3. Stuart Hameroff, Roger Penrose. Consciousness in the universe. Physics of Life Reviews, 2013; DOI: 10.1016/j.plrev.2013.08.002