Quantum entanglement of K+ Ions
Multiple channel states & the role of noise in the brain – Bernroider, G. & Roy, S. (2005) – International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) Vol. 5841
Gustav Bernroider of Salzburg University has proposed that quantum coherence and entanglement in the ion channels of neurons underlies information processing in the brain and ultimately consciousness (1&2.).
Function & Structure of the Ion Channels
Ion channels are a crucial component in the axonal spiking/synaptic firing model of neuronal signalling and information processing. The axonal signal starts from the body of the neuron and proceeds down an extension called the axon, by means of a fluctuation in the difference in electrical potential across the membrane that forms the exterior of the axon. The membrane is formed by a double layer of lipids. The ion channels consist of protein molecules inserted through the lipid bi-layer. The axon fires when sodium (Na+) ions flow in through one set of ion channels, and subsequently returns to its resting state when potassium (K+) ions flow out through another set of ion channels. This process continues down the length of the axon until it reaches the synapse, which it allows to fire, and thus communicate with other neurons. Ion channels are thus a key mechanism in the brain’s signalling and information processing.
Bernroider bases his theory on recent studies of ion channels. These have been made possible by advances in high-resolution atomic-level spectroscopy and accompanying molecular dynamics simulations. His theory was principally developed in a 2005 paper with co-author Sisir Roy (1.). In this work, they draw particularly on the work of the MacKinnon group, and on studies of the potassium (K+) channel, especially the closed state of this channel. (3-20.)
The functioning of the K+ channel occurs in two stages, firstly, the selection of K+ ions in preference to any other species of ion, and secondly voltage-gating that controls the flow of these favoured K+ ions. The authors say that the traditional understanding of both functions has been altered by the recent studies. In its closed state, the channel is now seen to stabilise three K+ ions, two in the permeation filter of the ion channel and one in a water cavity to the intracellular side of this permeation path. In the case of the channel’s voltage gating, the electrical charges involved which were previously thought to act independently of the surrounding proteins and lipids, are now seen to be coupled to these proteins and lipids, and are thus involved in the gating process.
Atomic-level spectroscopy has revealed the detailed structure of the K+ channel in its closed state. The filter region of the channel has a framework of five sets of four oxygen atoms, which are each part of the carboxyl group of an amino-acid molecule in the surrounding protein. These are referred to as binding pockets, involving eight oxygen atoms in total. Both ions in the channel oscillate between two configurations (1).
Bernroider and Roy’s calculations lead them to claim that ion permeation can only be understood at the quantum level. Taking this as an initial assumption, they go on to ask whether the resulting model of the ion channel can be related to logic states. Their calculations suggest that the K+ ions and the carboxyl atoms of the binding pockets are two quantum-entangled sub-systems, and they equate this to a quantum computational mapping. The K+ ions that are destined to be expelled from the channel could, in the authors hypothesis, encode information about the state of the oxygen atoms in the axon membrane (1.).
In a later paper, presented at the Quantum Mind 2007 conference (2.), Bernroider proposed that different ion channels could be non-locally entangled, thus proposing a quantum process over an extended area of the axon. Given the importance of the ion channels in brain functioning, this model would give quantum coherence and non-locality in the axon membrane an integral role in the brain’s signalling and information processing.
Further to this, Bernroider and Roy have pointed out a similarity between the structure of the K+ ion channel and some recent proposals for building quantum computers, in which ions are held in microscopic traps (20-27.).
The authors argue that their model is well protected against decoherence, which has always been the most cogent criticism of quantum consciousness proposals. In particular, they claim that Tegmark’s calculations do not apply to their model (28.). The authors agree that for ions moving freely in water, Tegmark’s coherence time of 10^20 seconds would apply. However, they argue that the situation of the ions held in the permeation filter of the ion channel is markedly different, with a temperature about half the prevailing level for the brain, and the ions protected from decoherence by the binding pockets and the adjoining water cavity (1).
A New Theory of Quantum Consciousness?
It may be debatable as to whether Bernroider’s proposals amount to a new theory of quantum consciousness. In a paper in Neuroquantology in 2003 (29.), Bernroider appeared to favour David Bohm’s concept of an underlying implicate order from which arises the explicate order of classical physics that we experience in everyday life. However, Bernroider and Roy’s 2005 paper and Bernroider’s extension of this at the 2007 conference propose a new system of quantum coherence in the brain that is distinct from any of the earlier quantum consciousness models.
Bernroider’s theory could potentially be a vehicle for transfering consciousness from the implicate into the explicate order of David Bohm. Bernroider differs from Penrose and Hameroff’s Orch OR model in his emphasis of the axons and membranes, as opposed to the dendrites and the cytoskeleton. However, there are similarities between the two models in that both of them propose quantum coherence, non-locality and subsequent wave function collpase linked to the brain’s macroscopic information processing activity. As it stands, Bernroider’s proposals only deal with information processing in the brain rather than consciousness as such. However, it appears possible that wave function collpase in the ion channels might link to Penrose’s proposed geometry of space time, just as readily as wave function collapse in the cytoskeleton.
Bernroider’s theory is distinct from all earlier quantum consciousness theories in locating its mechanism in structures that are central to mainstream theories of the brain’s information processing and production of consciousness. If future experimentation were to substantiate the Bernroider proposals, this would involve a revolution in neuroscience of the most profound kind.
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