If there is a single silver lining to be found on the cloud that makes people go bald, it is that people with hair loss
don’t have to suffer the indignity of goose bumps on their head when it’s cold.
It’s not much of a consolation but at least it’s something. And now scientists think they know a bit more about why bald scalps don’t get goose bumps.
Not an evolutionary hangover
A research team at the University of Melbourne has been studying the mechanisms of goose bumps and made some surprising discoveries. They say that far from being a mere evolutionary hangover (a throwback to days when we needed hairy bodies to keep warm), goose bumps are closely linked to healing of the skin and cell regeneration.
Writing on the university's website, the team explains that goose bumps are very small elevations in the skin that occur around the hair follicle
. On the side wall of every follicle, under the surface of the skin, lies the arrector pili muscles, also known as 'goose bump muscles'.
“When hair emerges from the skin, it usually sits at an angle,
” the study states. Then, when the goose bump muscle contracts, it “elevates the hair and pulls the angle of the follicle straighter so the hair literally stands on end.
This is what helps mammals stay warm these hairs help create an air pocket that traps in warm air around the follicle. While this no longer plays an important part in the life of humans, the arrector pili certainly does.
The researchers explain
that hair follicles have the unique ability to completely regenerate. “When a hair is plucked, up to 70 per cent of the follicle is destroyed, but when the hair regrows, the follicle regenerates itself,
” they say.
The Melbourne University team adds that the lower end of the goose bump muscle is joined to the follicle, so it creates what they call a ‘stem cell niche’: a place that guards and maintains stem cell populations. The upper end of the goose bump muscle creates a second stem cell niche, which is more important still because it maintains the stem cell population for the entire outer layer of the skin. The doctors explain that this muscle “is like a dumbbell connecting the two vital stem cell niches.”
This new knowledge helps scientists better understand where the epidermis’ stem cells really are but how does it relate to baldness?
“We discovered that when you go bald, part of the problem is because the attachment of the goose bump muscle to the hair follicle is destroyed and replaced by fat,” says Professor Rodney Sinclair, who is head of Dermatology at the University. “You can’t get goose bumps on the scalp when you go bald and you can’t regrow hairs either because the follicles can’t regenerate.”
New lines of thinking
The hope now is that this newfound understanding of the skin’s relationship with the goosebump muscle may unlock new lines of thinking pertaining to hair loss, especially conditions which can cause baldness.
The most commonly seen of these is Male Pattern Baldness
. This hereditary condition affects around half of all men by the time they hit 50, though it can affect men much younger as it can begin in those with an existing genetic predisposition any time following puberty.
There are currently two clinically-proven male hair loss treatments
which can be used to help stabilise shedding and promote hair growth, and a range of additional hair growth supporting products
which can be used alongside them. This approach can be incredibly effective
but it does require the follicles to be active in order to be viable. Hair loss treatment will not work on bald scalps where the skin has taken on a shiny, smooth appearance as this indicates that the follicles are no longer active.
The arrector pili muscles have already popped up in research into the hair loss condition Traction Alopecia
, too, however. This is often caused by frequently wearing hairstyles, such as braids or hair extensions, that place excessive strain on the hair follicles. It can lead to what looks like a receding hairline, as the hairline and temple area bears the brunt of this pressure, as well as patchy hairloss where the hairstyle is secured.
The founder of Applied Biology, Professor Andy Goren, had been researching new options for Traction Alopecia treatment
, when he discovered how the goosebump muscle holding each hair had a tendency to grip onto it with more force when it was contracted. He then used this observation to help create a technique that would lead to less shedding during styling procedures, helping people to avoid developing this form of hairloss.