Sexy gamers

Sonic the neurotransmitter

Scientists at Toronto Western Hospital have discovered the function of a long-mysterious brain chemical — which might help them prevent Parkinson’s Disease. It’s a neurotransmitter, something that helps to manage communication between brain and nerve cells; Parkinson’s patients don’t have enough of this chemical in their brains. This finding is considered to be quite a significant breakthrough.

And the name of the mystery neurotransmitter? “Sonic Hedgehog.”

The hospital issued a press release to Canada NewsWire, which is simply breathtaking in its weirdness. To quote:

The findings suggest that increasing the amount of Sonic Hedgehog in the brain may be a potential treatment for Parkinson’s disease. …

“The research demonstrates that Sonic Hedgehog plays a surprising role in the brain’s control of body movement,” says Dr. Jonathan Brotchie, senior scientist with Toronto Western Research Institute, the research arm of Toronto Western Hospital.

“More importantly, we have shown that this function of Sonic Hedgehog is reduced in Parkinson’s disease, and that this reduction may be one of the causes of Parkinson’s disease.”

Apparently, scientists discovered this mystery gene seven years ago or so, and gave it the video-game nickname. Who knew? At any rate, a Google search for “sonic hedgehog neuroscience” produces a blizzard of equally bizarre medical citations, such as this lovely bit of prose from Columbia University Health Sciences:

Starting with mouse embryonic stem cells growing in vitro, the scientists sequentially added two signaling proteins known to differentiate neural cells in vivo. Retinoic acid stimulated the formation of spinal cord cells and, then, sonic hedgehog changed the cord cells to spinal motor neurons.

(Thanks to Sean for pointing this one out!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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