UKZN PhD student, Betony Adams' researc,h looking into whether quantum physics plays a role in the workings of the brain, was featured on the front cover of leading physics magazine, Physics World this month. Picture: Supplied
UKZN PhD student, Betony Adams' researc,h looking into whether quantum physics plays a role in the workings of the brain, was featured on the front cover of leading physics magazine, Physics World this month. Picture: Supplied

Is quantum physics linked to consciousness?

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Jan 16, 2021

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Durban - While most of us have only heard about quantum physics by watching the Big Bang Theory, a week doing nuclear physics in matric led to a fascination for quantum physics – and whether it plays a role in the workings of the brain – for UKZN PhD student Betony Adams.

The research by Adams and her supervisor, Professor Francesco Petruccione, has featured in the lead article of the Physics World, January edition, “Light of the Mind: Is Quantum Physics Linked to Consciousness?”.

Adams who is doing her PhD in physics at the Centre for Quantum Technology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), started with a BSc Honours in physics and English literature at the University of Cape Town (UCT), followed by a Master's degree in English before hearing about the quantum research group at UKZN.

This week, she said: "When I visited the group, I really liked the people as well as the research they were doing, which led to my MSc in physics at UKZN."

Adams, who grew up on a farm in Estcourt, said: "I've always been fascinated with living things and by light, so I feel really lucky to get to combine these interests in my research.

"I didn't particularly enjoy physics at school, but I seem to remember we spent a week or so on nuclear physics in matric.

The cover of January’s Physics World

"I felt like I was being given a window into the secret lives of all the inscrutable objects around me. I think this sense of wonder is at the heart of my decision to do physics."

Commenting on the January article in Physics World, Adams said: "My research looks at whether quantum effects might play a role in how the brain works. The article in Physics World covered a number of possible quantum effects, but my PHD research focuses on quantum entanglement between neurons and how this might be influenced by pharmaceutical drugs such as lithium.

"Very simply, this entanglement, which might be explained as a special kind of communication between neurons, is measured through the property of spin. Spin describes how quantum particles such as electrons and nuclei behave in a magnetic field. My research investigates whether the spin of lithium ions, which are used to treat bipolar disorder, changes this communication between neurons," she said.

Adams said that while the article in Physics World covered a few of the possible applications which this field of research might lead to, in terms of her own research, she hoped "a better understanding of how antidepressants and mood stabilisers work might lead to better treatments for mental illnesses“.

"More widely, technologies such as quantum dots have been shown to undo the protein clumping that is associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Photobiomodulation, which is the application of red or near-infrared laser light, has also been demonstrated to modulate how the brain works.

"All of these point to new medical treatments that use electromagnetic rather than chemical therapeutics. This is not limited to the brain. We still do not completely understand the intricacies of the human body. The exact function of endogenous biophotons, for example, remains to be seen.

"Another growing topic of interest in quantum biology is concerned with reactive oxygen species, which are important signalling molecules but are also responsible for a host of diseases," she said.

Adams' supervisor UKZN’s Professor Francesco Petruccione is also interim director of the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Science, Pro vice-chancellor - Big Data and Informatics and SA Research Chair in Quantum Information Processing and Communication. Picture: Supplied

UKZN’s Professor Francesco Petruccione is her supervisor and is also interim director of the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Science, Pro Vice-Chancellor – Big Data and Informatics and SA Research Chair in Quantum Information Processing and Communication, while Adams' research is being co-supervised by Dr Ilya Sinayskiy.

Physics World is the membership magazine of the Institute of Physics, one of the largest physical societies in the world. It is an international monthly magazine covering all areas of physics, pure and applied, and is aimed at physicists in research, industry, physics outreach, and education worldwide.

An extract of the article reads: "The role of biophotons – spontaneous ultra-weak near-ultraviolet to near-infrared photons in biological systems – is a growing field in neurobiology.

"Light has such symbolic resonance for humanity. It features in art, religion, literature and even in how we talk about knowledge – we speak of 'enlightenment' or 'seeing the light' for example. It seems fitting therefore that it might play a physiological role as well. Just how light is involved in the signalling processes that constitute the central nervous system and its emergent property, consciousness, is still not clear. But inevitably where there are photons, there might be quantum mechanics.

"Photons, after all, are inextricably linked to the birth of quantum mechanics: Albert Einstein's 1921 Nobel prize was awarded not for relativity or other discoveries, but for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. He theorized that light, which was conventionally accepted to behave as a continuous wave, might also be considered to propagate in discrete packages, or quanta, which we call photons. This along with Max Planck's understanding of blackbody radiation, Niel Bohr's new model of the atom, Arthur Compton's research into X-rays and Louis de Broglie's suggestion that matter has wave-like properties, ushered in the quantum age."

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