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Quantum Computing: Neuroscience’s Next Leap?

New York, NY  ·  January 4, 2021

Quantum computing can become a tool in the arsenal of computational biologists and lead to revolutionary advances in our understanding of the biological processes in general — and the human brain in particular.

That is the core message of the report, published today in Nature Methods, from the multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team of scientists participating in a forum organized and co-led by Thomas Lehner, PhD, MPH, Scientific Director of Neuropsychiatric Disease Genomics at the New York Genome Center (NYGC).

“While computational biology has made rapid progress to delineate complex biological phenomena, there are constraints inherent in classical computing that limit the exploration and foundational quantitative recasting of biological processes necessary to advance multifaceted study,” said Dr. Lehner, who serves as a co-corresponding author of the Nature Methods report. “In particular, the study of the properties of the brain, such as cognition and behavior, is a uniquely challenging multi-level endeavor that demands pioneering approaches in computation.”

To create a transdisciplinary forum to explore these issues, Dr. Lehner had convened a National Institutes of Health virtual workshop in 2018, during his distinguished 15-year tenure at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he most recently served as Director, Office of Genomics Research Coordination and Senior Genomics Advisor, Intramural Research Program, prior to joining the NYGC in January 2020. At the workshop, academic and industry experts in quantum and parallel computing, genetics, and neuroscience presented perspectives on existing computational challenges and discussed key avenues to address them. The group continued their studies and analyses following the launch workshop, ultimately resulting in the Nature Methods report.

A key part of the team’s report is focused on the study of the human brain through genetics, genomics, neuroimaging, and deep behavioral phenotyping, a multidisciplinary effort that falls under the term ‘convergent neuroscience.’

“We highlight these areas since they exemplify two sources of complexity: separately, each field presents an incredibly rich set of problems that often push the limits of classical computational capability; in combination, they offer a multi-scale challenge leading from the molecular scale through the cellular and tissue levels, to brain architecture and, eventually, to complex human behaviors and disorders. We discuss how quantum algorithms that map onto methodological issues in the biological sciences may provide much needed improvements in computational efficiency,” said Dr. Lehner.

The report offers a critical assessment of the technological and conceptual advances still necessary before quantum computing can be fully leveraged by computational biologists. However, the team’s main focus is to outline the potential transcendent nature of this technology to solve problems of complexity that arise when biologists attempt to map multiple levels of analysis. A sufficiently powerful general purpose quantum computer, technology that it still several years in the future, holds the promise of solving problems that are fundamentally intractable in classical computing (“quantum supremacy”) and will lead to exponential speed-ups of the most complex and computational problems in the biological sciences.

“We emphasis the need for more transdisciplinary scientific exchange and a convergence of ideas and disciplines and a profound but realistic optimism about the future of quantum computing in biology,” said Dr. Lehner.

Read the full report here.

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