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Your Sixth Sense Does More than Feel

October 26, 2016
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There may be more to the sixth sense beyond basic premonitions. Although little research has been done on the neurological mechanisms behind these feelings, recent experiments with the gene PIEZO2 have some new information to reveal. One’s awareness of their body in space and one’s proprioception (the ability of the body to sense nearby stimuli) may have strong ties to the body’s proteins—and not necessarily to a gift of clairvoyance. PIEZO2 is an important gene that controls the body’s sense of touch and proprioception. When there are mutations in the gene, movement problems or a loss of balance and sense of touch can occur. The mutations cause the gene to block the production and activity of the Piezo2 proteins in cells. Piezo2 proteins are described as mechanosensitive proteins that create nerve signals charged with electricity when cells change shape. This could happen when one touches something, grabs or presses against an object. A recent study on patients with mutations in the PIEZO2 gene was conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Previous studies conducted on the subject on mice suggested that Piezo2 controlled touch and proprioception. The two patients that participated in the experiment had no relation and were nine and 19 years old. However, both of them had movement and balance issues accompanied by a loss of some of their sense of touch. They both had trouble walking; deformities in the hips, fingers, and foot; and a progressed stage of scoliosis. At the NIH Clinical Center, the doctors performed tests on the two patients with results that suggested that they had a lack of body awareness. When blindfolded, the patients found extreme difficulty in walking, requiring assistants to guide and keep them stabilized. While blindfolded, the two patients with PIEZO2 mutations found it hard to grab an object in front of them, they were, without their eyesight, unable to sense the direction that their joints would move. This, when compared to the other volunteers who participated and were blind folded, revealed that the two patients were perhaps touch-blind. Surprising, however, was the fact that the patients’ nervous systems had developed normally, perhaps even compensating for the lack of awareness in other parts of the body. To the doctors who conducted the study, this suggested that there may be alternate routes in which to access the nervous system—especially when it comes to neurological therapy techniques. In studies done before this, the mutations in PIEZO2 that had effects on the Piezo2 protein were found to result in disorders of the genetic musculoskeletal variety, such as: distal arthrogryposis type 5, Gordon Syndrome, and Marden-Walker Syndrome. The NIH’s study adds to this with the suggestion that Piezo2 is either required for the normal alignment and development of the skeletal system or that the body’s proprioception and sense of touch have a hand in the way that the musculoskeletal system develops. The lab doctors concluded that there needs to be side-by-side research from the lab but also from experiments such as the one conducted by the NIH.
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