NTU researchers seek clues on hair loss in goosebump phenomenon

08/06/2020 06:44 PM
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Lin Sung-jan (林頌然) / Photo courtesy of National Taiwan University
Lin Sung-jan (林頌然) / Photo courtesy of National Taiwan University

Taipei, Aug. 6 (CNA) A research team at National Taiwan University (NTU) has made an unlikely connection between the physiological phenomenon known as goosebumps and the treatment of hair loss, the results of which were published Thursday in the scientific journal Cell.

The team, led by Lin Sung-jan (林頌然), a professor at NTU's Department of Biomedical Engineering, examined the effects of the sympathetic nervous system - which regulates some of the body's unconscious actions - on hair follicle stem cells, which are responsible for hair growth.

According to Lin, researchers started by analyzing the goosebump phenomenon, a sympathetic nerve response involving the contraction of tiny muscles, known as arrector pili muscles, which causes hair to stand up straight on the skin.

In biological terms, this response helps insulate the body from temperature loss in the cold, and serves as a vestigial reflex against perceived threats, Lin said.

Although modern humans have evolved to have less hair, the goosebump response would have made our ancestors seem larger and more imposing, Lin said, citing the way cats can make the hair on their back stand up.

In its research, Lin's team observed that sympathetic nerve responses also had the effect of activating hair follicle stem cells - something that is necessary to start the cycles in which hair growth occurs.

Similarly, in sufferers of male baldness, it found that arrector pili muscle reactions were almost entirely absent in the affected areas.

This, said Lin, suggested that the biological mechanism behind baldness in men was closely connected to the sympathetic nervous system.

By examining this connection, Lin's team discovered that sympathetic nerves located near hair follicle stem cells formed structures similar to nerve synapses, which release adrenaline as a signal for the stem cells to activate.

Hair follicle stem cells, meanwhile, activate after receiving the signals via what are known as ADRB2 receptors, Lin said.

According to Lin, the research team hopes the findings will contribute to the development of small molecule drugs that can activate ADRB2 receptors as a means of regenerating hair.

The article, entitled "Cell Types Promoting Goosebumps Form a Niche to Regulate Hair Follicle Stem Cells," was authored by NTU postdoctoral researcher Chen Chih-lung (陳志龍), with assistance from teams at Harvard and Rockefeller universities in the United States.

(By Chen Chih-chung and Matthew Mazzetta)


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