“Sixth sense” Body Awareness

| September 22, 2016 | 0 Comments | Email This Post Email This Post
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33836853 - happy healthy black grandma

33836853 – happy healthy black grandma

With the help of two young patients with a unique neurological disorder, an initial study by scientists at the National Institutes of Health suggests that a gene called PIEZO2 controls specific aspects of human touch and proprioception, a “sixth sense” describing awareness of one’s body in space. Mutations in the gene caused the two to have movement and balance problems and the loss of some forms of touch. Despite their difficulties, they both appeared to cope with these challenges by relying heavily on vision and other senses.

“Our study highlights the critical importance of PIEZO2 and the senses it controls in our daily lives,” said Carsten G. Bönnemann, M.D., senior investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and a co-leader of the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. “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.”

Dr. Bönnemann’s team uses cutting edge genetic techniques to help diagnose children around the world who have disorders that are difficult to characterize. The two patients in this study are unrelated, one nine and the other 19 years old. They have difficulties walking; hip, finger and foot deformities; and abnormally curved spines diagnosed as progressive scoliosis.

Working with the laboratory of Alexander T. Chesler, Ph.D., investigator at NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the researchers discovered that the patients have mutations in the PIEZO2 gene that appear to block the normal production or activity of Piezo2 proteins in their cells. Piezo2 is what scientists call a mechanosensitive protein because it generates electrical nerve signals in response to changes in cell shape, such as when skin cells and neurons of the hand are pressed against a table. Studies in mice suggest that Piezo2 is found in the neurons that control touch and proprioception.

“As someone who studies Piezo2 in mice, working with these patients was humbling,” said Dr. Chesler. “Our results suggest they are touch-blind. The patient’s version of Piezo2 may not work, so their neurons cannot detect touch or limb movements.”

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