Baldness is a problem for millions of Americans, men and women alike. And as the science of gene mapping progresses, new genes related to baldness are being isolated in search of a treatment. More than 80 percent of cases of baldness are thought to be hereditary, but this isn't always a bad thing. There are a number of different types of baldness and each type is related to different genes.
The genes that are related to baldness directly determine the type of baldness. Many types of baldness are not genetic and with treatment they can be reversed.
- Androgenetic alopecia (AGA): Also known as male-pattern baldness, this type of baldness is determined by a genetic variability in the androgen receptor (AR). A polyglycine-encoding GGN repeat in exon 1 is the most likely candidate for this type of baldness developing at an early age. The X chromosome location of the AR indicates a maternal link. There are also some risk variants on chromosome 20 that, when combined with the genetic variability in the AR, increase the risk that a man will develop AGA sevenfold. This means that one in seven men have the potential for developing this type of baldness.
- Hereditary hypotrichosis simplex: This type of baldness results in hair thinning. Scientists have isolated a gene, APCDD1, that causes hair follicles to shrink, which can occur even in childhood. Other genes thought to play a role in this type of baldness are RPL21 and Sox21. Researchers found that when Sox21 gene activity is blocked, hair falls out in laboratory tests.
- Female androgenetic alopecia: This type of baldness is called female-pattern baldness. It is characterized by thinning hair throughout the top and sides of the head, but unlike male androgenetic alopecia, the hairline will typically remain the same and complete hair loss is not usually seen. This type of baldness is still not well understood, although it is thought that the same variants at chromosome 20 play a role, but the link is not as strong as it is in men, leading researchers to believe that there are other genetic factors to female androgenetic alopecia.
Is It Mother's Fault?
The short answer is yes. This is one time when the "old wives tale" rings true. The reason is that all of the genetic variants that cause baldness occur in the X chromosome, or the female chromosome. This means that the genetic predisposition for baldness is carried by mothers, not fathers, so they can pass these genes onto their children. Usually, male children genetically linked to male-pattern baldness are much more common than genetically linked female-pattern baldness in females.
In women, baldness may also be linked to the mother, but in a different way. Women often lose their hair due to a condition called "stress alopecia." This is a situation in which any shock to the body, such as childbirth or trauma can cause hair loss. Menopause is another very common cause of hair loss. While these are not specifically linked to a genetic cause, the way that the body responds to this stress is dictated by genetics, though the exact mechanism is not well known yet.
The Good News
The good news, especially for those who suffer from androgenetic alopecia, is there seems to be a correlation between men who go bald and prostate cancer. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle say that men who begin developing male-pattern baldness early in their lives are 45 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer.
There are a number of ways to treat baldness for both men and women. Many of these things are easily obtained without a prescription from a doctor. They include:
- Topical medications: these include medication like minoxidil. Currently, minoxidil is the medication approved to treat hair loss in women and it is available over-the-counter at any drug store.
- Finasteride: this is a pill that is prescribed for male-pattern baldness. It is only approved for use in men. It should not be taken by women because of the risk of birth defects.
- Corticoid steroids: these suppress immune responses that can cause hair loss. They do come with some risk and shouldn't be used over a long period of time.
- Wigs and hair pieces: Wig technology has come a long way. Many wigs or hair pieces, especially those used by people with genetic types of hair loss are so high tech that they don't have to be removed, even during sports or swimming. They suction onto the head or use silicone strips inside the wig cap to grip the head.
- Surgery: There are a few different surgery options available including hair transplants and scalp reduction surgery which removes some of the bald areas of the scalp and stretches the rest of the scalp with hair to fill in the patchy areas. The drawback is that surgery is usually expensive and patients run the risk of developing infections.
Hair loss is not the end of the world, although it can feel like it since we, as humans, value our appearance so much. The science of genetic hair loss is progressing and as genes that are linked to baldness are identified, scientists can begin to use this information to one day find a cure.