“Life would be incomprehensible without the quantum”, Lee Smolin 2019 1. Medicine can be defined as “the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease (in technical use often taken to exclude surgery)” and “a drug or other preparation for the treatment or prevention of disease” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/medicine). As disease tends to increase with age, and is associated with rising frailty and loss of functionality, it could actually be said that for the majority of people not exposed to injury or serious infection, medicine is actually about trying to keep everyone in optimal health for as long as possible – giving them a healthy lifespan.
A key component of a healthy life is the ability to efficiently utilise free energy and information to maintain functional structure through homeostasis and feedback, which could be said to be encapsulated by the term bioenergetics. The ultimate description of energy and information is of course interwoven in the concepts of quantum mechanics, which suggests that at some level, the study of the quantum world could shed light on bioenergetics. This is important, as not only is it becoming clear that mitochondrial function plays a big role in health and ageing, but theoretically, mitochondria could be using more significant quantum effects than previously thought 2. This therefore suggests that there is a great deal left to understand about biology, medicine and medicines. This is reflected by the key unanswered questions: what are the origins of life, what is ageing, and why do biological systems require a small amount of stress to function optimally – an adaptive process called “hormesis”?
Intriguingly, what quantum mechanics is actually describing in terms of an intuitive underlying reality of our Universe is not understood at all 3, which must indicate that we cannot truly understand life itself until we grasp it. Thus developing our understanding of biology, and thus medicine, must go hand-in-hand with our understanding of what quantum mechanics represents, especially in relation to thermodynamics, and how it could result in complex systems like life. This is where biological phenomena, such as hormesis, may provide a great deal of insight when applied to studying quantum effect in biology 4.
As thermodynamics is beginning to explain both life’s origins, and its very nature, and the role of quantum mechanics is becoming more apparent in biology, then a deeper understanding based on quantum mechanics may lead us to a fuller understanding of what life is. However, our understanding of the quantum world is still incomplete, which suggests our understanding of life is also incomplete. Science has split the world into two basic bits – the macroscopic classical world, where determinism rules and we can predict accurately future states from current states, and the microscopic quantum world of atoms and molecules, where, because of wave-particle duality, we can never precisely define current states and therefore predict future ones, so approximations have to be made; in the quantum world, despite its undisputedly ability to model the microscopic, it seems, according to some theorists, we can only ever know half of what we need to know to predict a future state – this division in opinion is long standing in the world of quantum mechanics 1. Lee Smolin is, like his predecessor Albert Einstein, a supporter of realism, who is suggesting that our understanding of quantum mechanics is still incomplete, as we still don’t understand what quantum mechanics really represents.
This therefore suggests that to truly understand life, we also need to truly understand quantum mechanics, which itself is still a developing field. At the present time, the most commonly taught version of the quantum world revolves around the Copenhagen interpretation, which was mainly developed by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and states that a quantum particle exists in all states at once, but only falls into one state when observed. There are, however, many other theories, such as the Many Worlds Theory, whose underpinnings was originally developed by Hugh Everett.
The idea that biology is using significant quantum biological effects has been long discussed, in fact, the concept came into being shortly after quantum mechanics itself began to take shape in the 1920s. Two of the key figures in this were Pascual Jordan and Erwin Schrödinger who argued that living systems may well depend on the dynamics of small groups of molecules describable by quantum mechanics, in particular, the quantum effect called “coherence”. Intriguingly, although many thought that this may be impossible in the warm and wet environment of life, it now seems that this may even enhance this effect – which supports the idea that these small quantum systems are subject to biological amplification. This of course implies that through billions of years of evolution life has been using these principles 5,6.
Quantum biology is the theoretical and practical study of the extent that biological processes may be using significant quantum effects, which suggests that the term “bioquantome” could be applied as an encompassing term to describe these processes. If life does have an extensive bioquantome, then it is likely that alterations in this bioquantome could have implications for optimal health, and thus medicine. This therefore suggests that a deeper understanding of quantum biology could improve our understanding of biological disease processes, in particular, by using it to shed light on the origins of life and thus, the ageing process. This implies that a quantum definition of life may need to be sought by peeling back the complexity until we find the most fundamental principles of all. This approach is limited because it seems that quantum theory itself, as an all-encompassing theory of the Universe, is still incomplete due to difficulties in embracing realism and giving a complete description of nature 1.
However, there has been much progress in trying explain life using physical principles, for instance, via thermodynamics and information theory, as life is very good at managing, retrieving and storing information through positive feedback 7, and could be used to explain its origins 8. It is therefore relevant that for many years, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics were seen as separate disciplines, with the former largely describing the macroscopic world as a phenomenological description, the later, that of the microscopic and more fundamental description. Today, they are coming together in the field of quantum thermodynamics 9. In effect, as thermodynamic explanations of the origins of life become established, it will also become ultimately explainable using quantum mechanics.
Thus the bioquantome could be defined as those biological processes that rely on quantum effects, such as coherence and superposition that extend both in time, space and distance over and above what might be expected from the normal quantum mechanical description of chemistry in living things, and perhaps approach those only seen in quantum physics laboratories under very specific and highly controlled conditions. This might indicate that bioquantome, if real, could be defined as localised biological supraquantum states that have arisen through natural selection to enable life to be as efficient and adaptable as possible. This therefore raises the question, if real, how important are they and to what extent do they play a role in bioenergetics, and thus, optimal health.
Quantum mechanics has been used to design and develop key pieces of scientific apparatus to aid in scientific research into biology, diagnosis and designing drugs. For instance nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which is more colloquially called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or tunnelling electron microscopes to investigate the structure of viruses, or X-ray crystallography to study the shape of drugs and their “targets”, or more recently, the use of fluorescence-lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM) using two-photon technology to both image and study mitochondrial function in live cells. Indeed, microscopy has been central to much of the rapid increases in understanding of biological processes. The latest application of quantum principles in microscopy is via “ghost imaging”, which uses the principle of entanglement of photons 10.
Critically, newer techniques, such as two-dimensional Fourier transform electronic spectroscopy, using ultrafast laser pulsing, a “pump-probe” technique, is now being used to directly investigate quantum effects in biological systems – at the present time, most of this research is studying light harvesting systems in photosynthesis. The evidence is strongly suggesting that in some circumstances this process is using significant quantum effects over and above the normal underlying quantum mechanical description of chemistry, for instance, either to enhance efficiency of energy capture, or to dissipate excessive energy enabling systems to be more adaptable – as indicated by quantum beating. It also seems that this goes hand in hand with more conventional non-quantum descriptions of energy transfer and charge splitting, which is why opinion may be split on the extent that the more exotic quantum effects have a role 11,12.
The potential existence of a bioquantome, and thus, the possibility that life is using supraquantum effects and could thus have a pronounced effect on metabolism, and thus the occurrence of disease, has to be differentiated from much older and broader concepts that have attempted to integrate quantum mechanics into the practice of healing that appear to have embraced the Copenhagen interpretation.
“Quantum Medicine” as a term has actually been used for many years, in particular by scientists and physicians looking towards a more holistic approach to medicine, which is also based on embracing the concept that quantum mechanics explains the fundamental nature of our universe. The main approach of many of these folk, such as Deepak Chopra who originally trained as a medical doctor, is to integrate ancient insights, such as Ayurveda medicine, with modern scientific theory, in particular, the relationship between the mind and the body and the ability of the mind to self-heal. His thinking has been heavily influenced by Amit Goswami, who in contrast, trained as a quantum physicist, and who thus came at the concept of holistic and integrated medicine from the opposite direction. Their thinking is very much based on the top down interpretation of the quantum world, where a conscious observer is required as “observation” induces the formation of a particular reality. This concept is one way of viewing the Copenhagen interpretation in relation to wave function collapse.
In contrast, the existence of the bioquantome is very much a bottom up approach, based on the concept of quantum realism, in that biology is a product of quantum mechanical principles that underlie our Universe, and thus must be based on it, and appears to have through evolution, selective engendered the ability to amplify some of these effects at a slightly longer and larger time and physical scale. This was the point that perhaps Erwin Schrödinger was making. From this perspective the ability to use information, which in its broadest terms, could be called intelligence, emerged as a central component of life and is central to its ability to adapt. At the present time, as the term “quantum medicine” has already gained a meaning through the thinking of Chopra and Goswami, investigations of the bioquantome to improve our understanding of biology, and ultimately, medicine, represent a completely different approach and is not “quantum medicine” as many would currently understand it.
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