Science

Consciousness: Quantum experiments add weight to a fringe

Experiments on how anaesthetics alter the behaviour of tiny structures found in brain cells bolster the controversial idea that quantum effects in the brain might explain consciousness

Physics



18 April 2022

Fibroblast cells. Immunofluorescence light micrograph of fibroblast cells. The cell nuclei are purple, actin filaments are cyan and microtubules, protein filaments that make up part of the cytoskeleton, are yellow. Fibroblasts are cells that give rise to connective tissue such as collagen, the main structural protein in the body. They are important in wound healing. Magnification: x500 when printed at 10 centimetres wide.

Microtubules, seen in yellow in this image, are part of the skeleton of plant and animal cells

DR TORSTEN WITTMANN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The controversial idea that quantum effects in the brain can explain consciousness has passed a key test. Experiments show that anaesthetic drugs reduce how long tiny structures found in brain cells can sustain suspected quantum excitations. As anaesthetic switches consciousness on and off, the results may implicate these structures, called microtubules, as a nexus of our conscious experience.

According to some interpretations of quantum mechanics, a system can exist in multiple states simultaneously …


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