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Quantum fibers in the brain: Breakthrough discovery could protect against degenerative diseases

This discovery not only advances neuroscience but also hints at new applications in quantum computing and therapeutic strategies for degenerative diseases.
This discovery not only advances neuroscience but also hints at new applications in quantum computing and therapeutic strategies for degenerative diseases. (CREDIT: Getty Images)

Quantum mechanics, the fundamental physics governing the tiny realm of atoms and molecules, is notoriously sensitive to disturbances. This sensitivity necessitates quantum computers to operate at temperatures colder than outer space and confines quantum properties to exceedingly small objects.

Biological systems, being warm, chaotic, and relatively large at the cellular level, seem inhospitable to quantum effects. However, a groundbreaking study published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry has unveiled a quantum phenomenon in biology that endures these harsh conditions.


This discovery not only advances neuroscience but also hints at new applications in quantum computing and therapeutic strategies for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“I believe that our work is a quantum leap for quantum biology, taking us beyond photosynthesis and into other realms of exploration: investigating implications for quantum information processing, and discovering new therapeutic approaches for complex diseases,” said Dr. Philip Kurian, principal investigator and founding director of the Quantum Biology Laboratory at Howard University.

The study, supported by The Guy Foundation, represents a significant milestone in understanding the relationship between life and quantum mechanics.


Single-Photon Superradiance: The Star of the Study

The focus of this study is tryptophan, a molecule commonly associated with turkey dinners but vital in many biological contexts. As an amino acid, tryptophan is a fundamental building block for proteins and structures such as cilia, flagella, and centrioles.

Tryptophan exhibits a standard quantum property: it can absorb a photon and emit another at a different frequency, a process known as fluorescence. This property is widely used in studies of protein responses.


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However, the researchers found that when many tryptophan molecules are arranged symmetrically, as in larger structures like centrioles, they fluoresce more strongly and quickly than they would individually.

This collective behavior, known as “superradiance,” occurs due to quantum mechanics and only with single photons. This finding demonstrates a significant quantum effect in a large object within a warm, noisy environment.


“This publication is the fruit of a decade of work thinking of these networks as key drivers for important quantum effects at the cellular level,” Kurian explained.

“It’s a beautiful result,” said Professor Majed Chergui of The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, who led the experimental team. “It took very precise and careful application of standard protein spectroscopy methods, but guided by the theoretical predictions of our collaborators, we were able to confirm a stunning signature of superradiance in a micron-scale biological system.”


Implications for Neurons

Large tryptophan networks are present in neurons, the cells that constitute the mammalian nervous system. The presence of quantum superradiance in these fiber-like bundles of neurons has two significant implications: protection against degenerative diseases and the transmission of quantum signals in the brain.

Degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s are associated with high oxidative stress, where the body harbors a large number of free radicals that emit harmful high-energy UV light particles. Tryptophan can absorb this ultraviolet light and re-emit it at a lower, safer energy. This study found that large tryptophan networks perform this task more efficiently and robustly due to their powerful quantum effects.

“This photoprotection may prove crucial in ameliorating or halting the progression of degenerative illness,” Kurian said. “We hope this will inspire a range of new experiments to understand how quantum-enhanced photoprotection plays a role in complex pathologies that thrive on highly oxidative conditions.”


The second implication concerns how neurons transmit signals. The standard model involves ions moving across membranes in a chemical process that takes a few milliseconds per signal. However, recent research suggests that this cannot be the whole story.

Superradiance in the brain occurs in under a picosecond—a billionth of a millisecond. These tryptophan networks might function as quantum fiber optics, enabling the brain to process information millions of times faster than chemical processes alone.

“The Kurian group and coworkers have enriched our understanding of information flows in biology at the quantum level,” said Michael Levin, director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. “Such quantum optical networks are widespread, not only in neural systems but broadly throughout the web of life. The remarkable properties of this signaling and information-processing modality could be hugely relevant for evolutionary, physical, and computational biology.”


Quantum Information Technology

The theoretical aspects of this study have captured the attention of researchers in quantum technology. The ability of fragile quantum effects to survive in a “messy” environment is of great interest to those working on quantum information technology. Kurian mentioned discussions with several quantum technology researchers who were surprised to find such a connection in the biological sciences.

“These new results will be of interest to the large community of researchers in open quantum systems and quantum computation, because the theoretical methods used in this study are widely employed in those fields to understand complex quantum networks in noisy environments,” said Professor Nicolò Defenu of the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich. “It’s really intriguing to see a vital connection between quantum computing and living systems.”

The study has also drawn the attention of quantum physicist Marlan Scully, a laser pioneer in quantum optics and a leading expert on superradiance. “Single-photon superradiance promises to yield new tools for storing quantum information, and this work showcases its effects in a totally new and different context,” Scully said. “We will certainly be examining closely the implications for quantum effects in living systems for years to come.”


As researchers continue to explore these findings, the intersection of quantum mechanics and biology promises to yield transformative insights and technologies.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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