Researchers at Israel Institute of Technology have identified a key factor in the cause of alopecia areata, an emotionally challenging hair loss disorder with no cure.
Their study suggests that future treatments could involve desensitizing the body’s immune system to the substances that provoke the attack.
In alopecia areata, white blood cells attack hair follicles. The Israeli researchers have shown that proteins produced by melanocytes (hair pigment-producing cells) trigger the assault when the body mistakes molecules within the cells for foreign substances.
In extreme cases, alopecia areata can lead to complete hair loss, alopecia universalis. It often begins in childhood, which can be psychologically devastating for young victims. The condition strikes an estimated 1.7 percent of people.
In their study, Israeli researchers grafted bits of hairless skin from the scalps of alopecia areata patients onto mice. The grafted skin usually started producing hair again. The researchers then injected the mice with the human patient’s white blood cells, causing hair loss in the grafted tissue – but only if they were first exposed to a mixture of protein fragments from the patient’s hair pigment cells.
This indicates that the pigment protein fragments were causing the immune response. Researchers also noted that white hairs tend to fall out less, suggesting that hair follicles lacking pigment-making cells might be less vulnerable to attack.