Frohlich condensates and the chemistry of consciousness
9 October 2009
Research conducted by a first year Bachelor of Science (Advanced) student at the University of Sydney, Laura McKemmish, and her University of Sydney Talented Student Program project supervisors, Professor Jeffrey Reimers and Professor Noel Hush, along with colleagues at the University of Queensland, provides a definitive analysis of a forty year old biochemical hypothesis, by showing the conditions that Fröhlich condensates will form under.
Their research, published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier in 2009 and in the US journal Physical Review E on 13 August 2009, provides evidence against a popular model of human consciousness, which incorporates Fröhlich condensates in microtubules inside cells, acting like cellular quantum computing elements.
Professor Reimers, from the School of Chemistry, and Professor Hush, from the School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences, along with University of Queensland scientists Professor Ross McKenzie from the School of Physical Sciences, and Professor Alan Mark from the School of Molecular and Microbial Sciences, worked with Laura McKemmish, who is now in her third year of her Bachelor of Science (Advanced) degree at the University of Sydney, as part of her first year Talented Student Program project.
The Talented Student Program, run by the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney, gives top science students the opportunity to work on more challenging science projects and engage in real research opportunities.
"Herbert Fröhlich proposed in 1968 that there could exist condensates composed of a collection of vibrational oscillators that had all of their vibrational energy concentrated in just one collective motion - the motion of lowest frequency," explained Laura.
"These Fröhlich condensates were postulated to develop a highly ordered non-equilibrium state that has properties similar to a Bose-Einstein condensate," said Laura.
"All of the energy in this lowest frequency mode was thought to arise from Jaser-like 'coherent excitation', creating large scale dynamic properties in the whole system. So you end up with macroscopic properties in the system that are significantly different from ordinary experience. Superconductivity is another example of this sort of collective property within a system.
"There's lots of interest in finding applications of Fröhlich condensates in physics, chemistry, biology and medicine. The problem is that there has never been an unambiguous example of Fröhlich condensates identified."
The team determined the most likely experimental signatures of Fröhlich condensation.
Professor Reimers explained, "We investigated the basic properties of Fröhlich condensates and classified them into three types: weak condensates, strong condensates and coherent condensates.
"Weak condensates allow for profound effects on chemical and biochemical kinetics, while strong condensates form when an extremely large amount of energy is channeled into one vibrational mode, and coherent condensates form when this energy is placed in a single quantum state," said Professor Reimers.
"We showed that Fröhlich condensates may have significant features quite distinct from the extraordinary properties normally envisaged."
The team considered several properties of Fröhlich condensates, including their robustness to parameter variations, the temperatures at which they form, the limitations of the basic assumptions, and one specific physical proposal for their production from a chemical energy source - the Wu-Austin model.
"We found that coherent condensates involve extremely large energies, are extremely fragile and are not produced by the Wu-Austin dynamical Hamiltonian that provides the simplest depiction of Fröhlich condensates formed using mechanically supplied energy," explained Professor Reimers.
"This means they are unable to form in any biological environment."
No Fröhlich condensates in the brain
"One application of Fröhlich condensates that has attracted lots of interest is in theories to explain how consciousness comes about in our brains," said Professor Hush.
"It's been proposed that the usual Turing-type architecture in computers is an insufficient model for the working of the human mind and unlikely to achieve the emergence of consciousness. Instead, it's been suggested that quantum behaviour must be involved, so that the mind is really a neural quantum computer," explained Professor Hush.
"The most celebrated exponent of this view is Sir Roger Penrose, the eminent British mathematician, whose two books for the general public advocating this view - 'The Emperor's New Mind' and 'Shadows of the Mind' - have both been best sellers.
"Sir Roger Penrose, along with US medical scientist Professor Stuart Hameroff, advanced the view that the seat of consciousness and quantised mental activity are microtubules, which form the cytoskeleton of cells," said Professor Hush.
"The Penrose-Hameroff theory of quantum consciousness is the only detailed hypothesis so far in support of the idea of a 'quantum mind' and of 'quantum consciousness'. An essential feature of quantum computers is 'coherence' - the ability of a system to move in a completely regular fashion for long times, in this case the millisecond timescale of neural processes. To produce this coherence, the theory evokes Fröhlich condensation as an essential element.
"Our work has shown that this theory for consciousness, and related theories for cognitive function that involve Fröhlich condensates, are untenable on the grounds of basic physics," said Professor Hush.
The Australian team published follow-up research in the US journal Physical Review E on 13 August 2009, which demonstrates that the Penrose-Hameroff proposal is also untenable on biological grounds, because it is incompatible with the known biology of microtubules.
"Our two papers together remove any basis for the Penrose-Hameroff theory of quantum consciousness - an erroneous view has been energetically advertised for a long period. Now we can put a stop to his theory," said Professor Hush.
"The fact that Laura McKemmish contributed to this research when she was only in her first year of university and has published her work at such a young age, shows what a very remarkable young scientist she is," concluded Professor Hush.
Other applications for Fröhlich condensates
"For forty years, scientists have searched in vain for Fröhlich condensates, looking for amazing properties of coherence associated with what would be, in effect, a novel state of matter akin to lasers, superconductivity, and Bose-Einstein condensation," said Professor Reimers.
While the researchers showed that a coherent Fröhlich condensate is not possible in biology and generally unlikely, they also predicted the existence of weak and strong condensates co-existing in normal biological or chemical environments.
"Weak Fröhlich condensates may have profound effects on chemical and enzyme kinetics, and may be produced from biochemical energy or from radio frequency, microwave, or terahertz radiation. Indeed, microtubulin resonance observed at 8.085 MHz by Pokorny is identified as a possible candidate, with microwave reactors (green chemistry) and terahertz medicine appearing as other feasible sources," explained Professor Reimers.
Much remains to be learned about how both weak and intense microwave and terahertz radiation interact with biological tissue, and Fröhlich condensates may play a significant role.
"In particular, it is feasible that weak Fröhlich condensates could form in biological tissues powered by the weak microwave radiation emitted by mobile phones, providing an answer to the much asked question as to how such radiation could produce adverse effects."
Contact: Katynna Gill
Phone: 02 9351 6997