Monday, September 12, 2022

Ultimate Computing: Biomolecular Consciousness And NanoTechnology

This book has been written by an anesthesiologist because of a confluence of two fascinations. The first is the nature of consciousness, which anesthesiologists routinely erase and restore in their patients. The second is a fifteen year trail of notions that would not go away. While a third year medical student in 1972, I spent a summer research elective in a cancer laboratory. For some reason I became fascinated and fixated by one particular question. When cells divided, the chromosomes were separated and daughter cell architecture established by wispy strands called mitotic spindles (“microtubules”) and cylindrical organelles called centrioles. Somehow, the centrioles and spindles “knew” when to move, where to go, and what to do. The uncanny guidance and orientation mechanism of these tiny biomolecular structures seemed to require some kind of motorized intelligence.

At about the same time, electron microscopy techniques were revealing the interior of all living cells to be densely filled with wispy strands, some of which were identical to mitotic spindles. Interconnected in dynamic parallel networks, these structures were thought to serve a purely supportive, or mechanical structural role and were collectively termed the “cytoskeleton.”

But several factors suggested that the cytoskeleton was more than the structural “bones” of the cell: they manipulated dynamic activities, orchestrating complex and highly efficient processes such as cell growth, mitosis and transport. Another factor was a lack of any other candidate for “real time” dynamic organization within cells. Long term blueprints and genetic information clearly resided in DNA and RNA, and membranes performed dynamic functions at cell surfaces. However, a mechanism for the moment to moment execution, organization, and activities within cells remained unknown. 

Where was the nervous system within the cell? Was there a biological controller? 

This book is based on the premise that the cytoskeleton is the cell’s nervous system, the biological controller/computer. In the brain this implies that the basic levels of cognition are within nerve cells, that cytoskeletal filaments are the roots of consciousness. 

The small size and rapid conformational activities of cytoskeletal proteins are just beyond the resolution of current technologies, so their potential dynamics remain unexplored and a cytoskeletal controlling capability untested. Near future technologies will be able to function in the nanoscale (nano = 10-9; nanometer = one billionth meter, nanosecond = one billionth second and will hopefully resolve these questions. If indeed cytoskeletal dynamics are the texture of intracellular information processing, these same “nanotechnologies” should enable direct monitoring, decoding and interfacing between biological and technological information devices. This in turn could result in important biomedical applications and perhaps a merger of mind and machine: Ultimate Computing.

A thorough consideration of these ideas involves a number of disciplines, all of which are at least tangentially related to anesthesiology. These include biochemistry, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, mathematics, microbiology, molecular biology, pharmacology, philosophy, physics, physiology, and psychology. As an expert in none, but a dabbler in all, I hope true experts in these fields will find my efforts never-the-less interesting.

Starting from a cytoskeletal perspective, this book flings metaphors at the truth. Perhaps one or more will land on target, or at least come close.


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