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Saturday, November 26, 2016

The BrainSCAN project

"It's an idea that is a little bit out there. [But] it's definitely in the category of things that would be awesome if true ... "
"It would open up a whole new window on the brain."
"We know that the photons are there, and photons are really good for sending signals. It would seem kind of natural for evolution to have found that, too."
Christoph Simon, Quantum physicist, University of Calgary

"It's obviously going to be controversial [the theory that the brain uses optics as a type of communication]."
"But that is good ... Controversy is good."
"It opens the possibility that you could shine light in one area and that light could be piped via the axons to another area ... and excite or inhibit other areas."
Ravi Menon, medical biophysicist, Western University
A human brain is displayed inside a glass box in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images      A human brain is displayed inside a glass box in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

What if? The current wisdom is that brain cells communicate through the auspices of electrical impulses, the bio-methodology whereby currents pass from neuron to neuron, instantly delivering messages from the brain to other parts of the body. Central command; our brains, in rapid-fire succession, blink out the coded messages for our heart to beat, our lungs to breathe, our muscles to respond to orders that our limbs be set into motion; limitless orders the body responds to in a fluid flow of command-and-respond.

At the University of Calgary, scientists there are theorizing the brain's capability of harnessing other communication powers, a system of communication based on light-reception: think fibre-optic network enmeshed with the brain to service and animate the mind. Through the use of modelling by computer the Calgary scientific team forward the idea in a journal article (see abstract below) of the plausibility that photons, fundamental particles of light, are able to zip about biological cables that link to parts of the brain.

The mystery of how nature has instructed groups of molecules to generate consciousness itself could possibly be unravelled and in the process enable science to become far more confidently familiarized with how the brain operates. Dr. Christoph Simon credits the idea having lodged in his thought processes upon discovering that specific brain cells -- along with some others elsewhere in the body -- produce photons through the process of normal metabolism.

Axons, the silk-threaded portion of nerve cells, which transmits signals to other cells, and their protective myelin sheath, could conceivably take on the mantle of "bio-photon" conductor. A biophysician from the university's oncology department joined Simon and his colleagues to develop a model which was used to test if there was physical potential for the axons to conduct light. Their observation concluded that it would.

Which does not quite prove that this is what is taking place. Still, a light communication protocol could conceivably transmit information tens of millions of times more efficiently than the electrical spark taking place between neurons, according to Dr. Simon. Of greater moment, such a system could permit for the transmission of quantum data, the basic underpinning of quantum theory taken from the world of atomic and sub-atomic particles where two places at the same time can exist containing two things at once.

The speculation represents a rather neat conception, that nature identified and acted upon the very same possibility that has now fixated Dr. Simon and his colleagues. The very thought that the mystery of how it is that the brain produces consciousness, an evasive riddle that researchers have thus far failed to solve, might be within reach of understanding, provoking additional curiosity. As is usual when a new scientific theory is proposed, there are doubters, and though outside experts find the theory interesting, they remain to be convinced.

The team has succeeded in demonstrating that it is entirely possible for axons to conduct light. But in view of the understanding that the brain's production of photons is "weak", the question lingers; is it actually using optics as a communication form, or is it not? The theoretical "light pipes", on the other hand, whether or not an optical communication network exists, could be research-useful in neurological structures or treatments, according to Dr. Menon.


Possible existence of optical communication channels in the brain

Given that many fundamental questions in neuroscience are still open, it seems pertinent to explore whether the brain might use other physical modalities than the ones that have been discovered so far. In particular it is well established that neurons can emit photons, which prompts the question whether these biophotons could serve as signals between neurons, in addition to the well-known electro-chemical signals. For such communication to be targeted, the photons would need to travel in waveguides. Here we show, based on detailed theoretical modeling, that myelinated axons could serve as photonic waveguides, taking into account realistic optical imperfections. We propose experiments, both in vivo and in vitro, to test our hypothesis. We discuss the implications of our results, including the question whether photons could mediate long-range quantum entanglement in the brain. 
Sci Rep. 2016; 6: 36508.
Published online 2016 Nov 7. doi:  10.1038/srep36508
Logo of scirep

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