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Former Premed wants to Quantum Computation/Computational Neuroscience

  1. Jun 13, 2008 #1
    Hey guys!

    I have a double degree in Biochem (B.S.) & Physics (B.A.) from Virginia, and I wanted to request some career guidance.

    Initially in college, I was a premed staying on the Biochem. Then I discovered the awesomeness that was Feynman and rest of physics. String theory really pulled me into physics, when I was in like 7th grade, but anyways.

    So I graduated, not with the greatest GPA in the world, ~3.0. I think the double degree was a mistake, but life goes on.

    Currently, I'm taking summer courses at Cornell (Intermediate Mechanics, Math. Phys., Quantum, & Intermediate E&M). I never took Mechanics and E&M in college, so I'm taking it now. Already took Quantum, but wanted a refresher because it's been a long time.

    Anyways, I'm not a premed anymore, need to retake the GREs one more time, got a 600 in Physics, which is good enough.

    As far as interests go, I have a really peculiar interest in the convergence of Quantum computation and computational neuroscience. I feel like this convergence will occur sometime in the future and a career that specializes in the either discipline would be beneficial. I've always wanted to study the brain, still do, but I feel like with a physics background, I would go in prepared. Quantum computation also grabbed my interest as the theory seems very much applicable in the near future.

    Any suggestions as to a career path? I know UNC has a computational neurophysics lab and I'm sure people would interest the idea of studying quantum computational applications in the brain. Or I could be completely wrong. My plan was to apply in the fall for 09 entry. Do well at Cornell and then score on the GREs to get into a decent grad school.

    Are there any schools that would accept this weird interest I have?

    Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 13, 2008 #2


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    "quantum computational applications in the brain"?

    That sounds like something Penrose might be interested in.
    Whether or not we need to take ANY "quantum effects" into account in order to understand what is going on in the brain is a very controversial topic, a very small minority (including Penrose) thinks that we need QM/QC, BUT a majority disagrees (and there are all sorts of good reason for that, we can be very sure that the brain is NOT a quantum computer).
    There is of course a lot of new-age books etc written about QM and the brain, but that has nothing to do with science.

    It is very possible that there is some overlap between QC and computational neuroscience, but if so it would be in the way algorithms etc are studied, e.g. some of the formalism might be the same; but there is no (obvious) common physical foundation.
    (it is worth noting that much of the formalism and many of the ideas used in QC comes from the field of reversible computing which has been around for a very long time and is not directly connected to quantum mechanics).
  4. Jun 13, 2008 #3
    f95toli put things very nicely.

    You might try to pick out some neurophysics articles in Nature or Science to get an idea about some of the interesting recent work in the field. That will also give you some names to google.
  5. Jun 13, 2008 #4
    yeah..i very much agree f95toli. I'm just interested in the two fields as far as where they can take us in the future wrt to AI and other applications. I took a QC course and the closest thing I found to penrose was a Quantum Neural Network. I think a biological model of a QNN would not be feasible, but theories of comp. neurosci. and QNNs share some similarities.

    I was just wondering if there was a place that would offer me the flexibility of dabbling in both fields. I hear a lot of theoretical condensed matter people go into this stuff. My friend at UIUC said there's a lot of people there that have this kind of interest.

    But thanks for the info. Will check out the google articles.

    Keep posting!
  6. Jun 14, 2008 #5
    This "convergence" of course will only happen if it turns out to be true that the brain is actually a quantum computer. While there are a few people out there pushing this idea (Hameroff, Penrose etc) the prevailing opinion in the field is that the brain is probably a classical computer. To my knowledge there have been no observations that are inconsistent with classical computation going on in the brain. We also know some things about the physics of building a quantum computer which make it seem highly unlikely to be occurring in the warm wet environment of the brain.

    This is not to say that a physics education would be worthless in computational neuroscience. That definitely not the case. Actually, it seems that the majority of computational neuroscientists have a physics background. Much of the theoretical tools used for computational neuroscience were borrowed from physics or computer science.
  7. Jun 14, 2008 #6


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  8. Jun 15, 2008 #7
    In my opinoin there is a need for quantum computing in neuroscience. Not in the way you guys see it, but in a different point of view. The molecular view that is. Of course you could model the brain as a system any way you'd like, but I think that you first should look at the quantum level in the brain, do some calculations on that and derive some good afterthought in how the thing works.

    One field where QC should be feasible is a monte carlo-approach to what happens in the neurons, modeling catalysators, inhibitors and reactions in the brain at the quantum level.

    And I don't necessarily mean the qubits or stuff like that, more quantum computations using computational physics.
  9. Jun 25, 2009 #8
    Actually I wouldn't even say the brain is a classical computer. Brain operates analogically, classical models of computation operate in a discrete fashion.
  10. Jun 26, 2009 #9
    I meant classical to mean "not-quantum". Not to mean that the brain was anything like modern engineered computers. I would still refer to an analog computer made with running water and tinkertoys as being classical in this context.

    Still though, it's not fair to say that the brain operates in analog. Neuronal spikes are discrete events. It is an open question whether the computation is done by the timing of individual spikes or by cell's firing rates over some period of time. The former is a discrete mode of computation and the latter is analog.

    As with most such controversies in neuroscience, the answer is likely to be that both discrete and analog mechanisms of computation are used by the brain.
  11. Jun 26, 2009 #10
    It's true that spikes are mostly discrete events, but the variables that determinate whether or not spiking occurs are analog (such as ion concentration, membrane potential etc etc)
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