Vitality

Sixth Sense: Study Of Gene Could Explain Mechanism Behind Concept

sense of touch
The shadow of a hand is seen about to touch an untitled work of art at the Henry Moore Gallery, Royal College Of Art in London, March 2, 2005. Getty Images/Chris Jackson

Scientists have discovered evidence that the “sixth sense” may be more than just a feeling.

Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a new study by scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studying two patients with a rare neurological disorder, shows that a gene – PIEZO2 – controls certain aspects of human touch and proprioception, the ability to sense stimuli originating within the body. Due to mutations in this gene, the patients faced numerous difficulties, including loss of touch in certain parts. However, they managed to overcome these challenges by using vision and other senses.

“Our study highlights the critical importance of PIEZO2 and the senses it controls in our daily lives,” study co-leader Carsten G. Bönnemann, senior investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said in a press release. “The results establish that PIEZO2 is a touch and proprioception gene in humans. Understanding its role in these senses may provide clues to a variety of neurological disorders.”

The two patients – 9 and 19 years of age – had been diagnosed with progressive scoliosis, a condition where the curvature of the spine gets worse with time. During the study, the researchers found that the mutations in the PIEZO2 gene were blocking the normal production of Piezo2 protein ­– a mechanosensitive protein that generates electrical nerve signals when cells change their shape.

There were differences between the patients and the unaffected volunteers when it came to body awareness, sensitivity to certain kinds of touch and how they perceived certain senses, but the patients’ nervous systems seemed to be developing normally despite these. The sensations of pain, itch, and temperature were felt normally, with electricity being conducted regularly by the nerves in their limbs, and the cognitive abilities bore similarities to the control subjects of the same age group.

“What’s remarkable about these patients is how much their nervous systems compensate for their lack of touch and body awareness,” said Bönnemann. “It suggests the nervous system may have several alternate pathways that we can tap into when designing new therapies.”

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