Hair follicles not only produce hair, but also play a role in sensing touch. This is clear from research Imperial College London.
Hair follicles are small structures in the skin from which your hair grows. It is found throughout the body except the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, lips, and eyelids. It has long been thought that the main function of hair follicles is hair growth, but British research has revealed a new role for hair follicles: sensing physical stimuli. This is remarkable, because it was previously assumed that only surrounding nerves transmitted touch to the brain, but it now appears that the hair follicles themselves are also able to do this.
The researchers discovered this when they looked at how hair follicle cells responded to different types of touch, such as bending hair fibers or brushing the skin. This showed that hair follicle cells respond not only to calcium signals – which indicate increased activity in the cell – but also to neurotransmitters such as serotonin and histamine. These substances can stimulate nearby nerves, which then transmit signals to the brain. This suggests that these same cells can sense when hair fibers are bent or combed.
Researchers do not yet know why this happens. “This is one of many new questions raised by this research,” said lead author Claire Higgins. It is clear that hair follicles respond differently to physical stimuli compared to other skin cells. While skin cells most commonly produce histamine only after physical stimulation, hair follicles produce both histamine and serotonin. “We don’t know yet why hair follicles react differently and secrete serotonin as well, but it’s certainly interesting,” Higgins says.
This discovery may have implications for the treatment of skin conditions such as eczema, where histamine plays a major role in causing inflammation and itching. Histamine is normally produced by immune cells in the skin, but hair follicles can also do so. “Which could mean that hair follicles play a role in the development or worsening of eczema. So the team wants to do more research on hair follicles. Perhaps this knowledge could be used to treat or prevent other skin conditions. One option they are studying is to affect the production of serotonin and histamine in Hair follicle cells in a way that can reduce the symptoms of eczema.
In addition, researchers are curious to know whether there are differences in hair follicles and their function in different hair types, such as scalp hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes. By investigating this further, researchers hope to better understand how we engage with the world around us and how we respond to different types of touch.
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