The protein behind touch

 
By Morgan Sherburne • Published: December 22nd, 2016
Category: Health in a Heartbeat
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You may not be able to use it to see dead people, but researchers have discovered a gene that corresponds to what many people call the “sixth sense.”

The gene controls both touch and the sense you have of yourself in space, a term called “proprioception” (proh-pree-uh-SEP-shun). For example, if you close your eyes and try to touch the tip of one finger to the tip of a finger on the opposite hand, you’re taking advantage of your sense of proprioception.

Scientists discovered this gene, PIEZ02, because some people have a flaw in it. The gene works by encoding the production of a protein that senses movement. It does this by sending signals to nerves in response to the way cells change shape when our fingers touch something solid, like pushing keys on a keyboard or swirling our hands through water in a pond. Patients who have a defect in the genes that produce this protein may not have a sense of touch at all, the researchers found.

The lack of sense of touch could lead to the patients having difficulty with movement and balance, which they seem to compensate for by using sight and sound. When researchers blindfolded the patients during their study, the patients wobbled and would have fallen down if assistants weren’t there to catch them. The patients also had difficulty grasping an object held in front of their faces when they were blindfolded, and felt other sensations differently from the control group.

The researchers suggest the performance of the gene may dictate how clumsy a person is—providing evidence that while we may want to be an Olympic athlete able to flip confidently down a balance beam, it just may not be in our genes.