Baldness and thinning hair are common and the ultimate fate of almost all men and women as they age. In fact, hair loss is genetic in origin, and as we come to a greater understanding of the biology and genetics of hair loss, we are beginning to find novel solutions to this age-old "problem" of the human condition. We have come a long way from the treatments for hair loss in ancient Egypt, which used a mixture of crocodile fat and hippopotamus dung to combat baldness. Another ancient cure for baldness included eating fried leeches. Men have been attempting to treat their hair loss for over 5000 years, beginning in approximately 3500 BC, when a list of treatments was passed on from generation to generation and incorporated into the medical libraries of Egyptian healers. In 1553 BC, the Ebers Papyrus, discovered in Luxor, Egypt, suggested a baldness prescription of iron, red lead, onions, alabaster, and honey which was to be swallowed, after first reciting a magical invocation to the sun god. In 420 BC, the ancient Grek Hippocrates, formulated an anti-hair loss mixture of opium, horseradish, pigeon droppings, beetroot, and various spices applied to the scalp. Hippocrates himself eventually became so bald that extreme cases of baldness became known as "Hippocratic baldness." He noted, however, that eunuchs never became bald -- a fact that was insightful and has been explained by modern baldness research.
The hair follicle is like a factory where both hair and its color are produced. There are about 100,000 hairs on the human scalp, and we can lose as many as 100 daily. These hairs, once they actually leave the hair canal, are biologically "dead" and can be cut, dyed, curled and straightened.
One line of exciting new research involves stem cell research, which is also giving hope to people with serious problems like cancer, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury. Adult stem cells -- which are located in the hair follicle -- are the source of scientific excitement. According to a January 7, 2000 article in the journal Cell, if stem cells can be channeled into specific "differentiation programs' they can be used for many therapies. "Among these are the generation of dermal papilla or hair follicle stem cells for treatment of baldness."
One of the most interesting findings in the last few years is the discovery of a gene linked to hair growth and loss. According to a 1998 study reported in Science, a gene called "hairless" is linked to a severe form of inherited baldness and may be the gene that directs the entire human hair cycle. Principle investigator Angela M. Christiano, Herbert Irving Assistant Professor of Dermatology, hailed the discovery of this gene as the beginning of anew era "that gives us endless possibilities that may allow us to effectively treat hair loss and possibly baldness within the next five years. It is now within our reach to design ways to grow hair, remove hair, even dye hair genetically and this can all be accomplished topically, reducing possible side effects."
How did the researchers discover this gene? The story is fascinating. There are a number of families affected by a rare genetic form of balding that is common in a village in Pakistan. It is called alopecia universalis. It causes hair loss over the entire body. This allowed researchers to pinpoint the gene.
There are several forms of alopecia, or hair loss, in human hair growth. The most common type is known as androgenetic alopecia, or male pattern baldness. It affects around 80% of men -- and by age 60, two thirds of men already suffer hairloss. That represents 40 million men in the U.S.
The current theory about this type of baldness is that as a male ages his hair follicles start to produce an enzyme called 5-alpha reductase, which converts testosterone into a form called dihydrotestosterone or DHT. DHT apparently causes hair follicles to spend less time growing and more time resting. The first stage of a hair's life cycle is the growing stage, which lasts two to five years. At any one time about ninety percent of hair follicles are in this stage, and they produce a tough protein, keratin, which helps the hair become thick. If these cells are not working at full capacity, they produce a "vellus hair" -- the peach fuzz of men who are going bald. Follicles influenced by DHT tend to produce vellus hair. They may also shrink and become constricted.
Interestingly, other specialized cells in the follicle produce "melanin," which gives hair its color.
Women can also suffer from baldness, but it is a generalized thinning of hair, not the pattern men get. Usually women's hair doesn't "recede." Even so, about 15% of all women are eventually afflicted with hair loss that is depressingly obvious. In addition, a type of hair loss known as "telogen effluvium" can afflict women. It is characterized by many hairs entering the telogen stage at once -- and it is a condition often brought about by rash dieting, chronic physical or emotional stress, severe illness, or post-pregnancy hormone changes. Once the woman recovers from the stress on her body, her hair will begin growing again, but to recover that lost hair can take up to a year.
A strange form of hair loss is one that is self-induced: trichotillomania and traction alopecia. In these odd conditions, people pull and twist their hair. Sometimes drugs used for obsessive-compulsive disorder can help this condition. In addition, many common drugs can cause hair loss. Chemotherapy patients tend to lose their hair, because the drugs not only stop cancer cells from dividing, they stop hair follicles from growing hair. Other drugs that can induce hair loss include: clofibrate and gemfiborzil (cholesterol lowering drugs); levodopa (Parkinson's medication), ulcer drugs like Tagamet, Zantac and Pepcid; anticoagulants like Comouran and Heparin, beta blocker drugs for high blood pressure and several other drugs.
Another form of hair loss, alopecia areata is a relatively common disease affecting 2.5 million people in America, or 1.7% of the U.S. population. It is thought to be an autoimmune disorder, that may be triggered by stress. Princess Stephanie, Grace Kelley's daughter, suffered from temporary alopecia areata during a stressful period. It may show up in childhood, and it takes three forms: alopecia areata (loss on the scalp); alopecia totalis (total loss on the scalp) and alopecia universalis (all scalp and body hair). In more than 80% alopecia areata will eventually go away on its own, especially if it occurs after puberty. Because it may be an autoimmune disorder, both topical and oral steroids are sometimes given to treat it. For more severe forms, stronger immunosuppressive drugs may be used.
Male pattern baldness is not just a matter of hair loss. It has also been linked to a higher incidence of heart disease. A Harvard study examined the link between hair loss and heart conditions, and found that men with extensive baldness had the greatest risk of heart disease -- 36% higher than normal. On the other hand, according to JoAnn Manson, a professor at Harvard Medical School, those with mild frontal hair loss or a receding hairline had no significant increased risk.
Several drugs are currently available to help male pattern baldness. Rogaine (monixidil) and Propecia (finasteride) are both approed by the FDA. They were drugs originally used for serious illness. Rogaine was used for high blood pressure, and finasteride for both prostate cancer and benign prostate enlargement. Rogains is sprayed or massaged into thinning areas of the scalp. Its' though to dilate the blood vessels and increase circulation, perhaps stimulate the hair follicles to grow back to their original size, or perhaps keep the follicles longer in the growing stage. Propecia is taken orally and helps slow down the conversion…