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June 30th, 2010
01:08 PM ET

Researchers find gene linked to hair loss

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center believe they have found the genetic basis of alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that attacks hair follicles and causes people to lose their hair.

The findings could make it easier to develop new treatments for the condition, in which loss can range from patches on the scalp to complete absence of hair on the entire body. Affecting approximately 5.3 million people, AA is the most common autoimmune disease in humans and is second only to male pattern baldness, when it comes to common forms of hair loss.  There is no cure and no effective treatments, aside from painful steroid injections to the scalp that don't always work.

Dr. Angela Christiano, professor of dermatology and genetics and development at Columbia University Medical Center, was lead author of the study. She noted her team's discovery is important because it was originally thought that AA was more related to inflammatory diseases, such as psoriasis, where a particular cell attacks the skin. But during their research, Christiano and her investigators learned that AA is actually more genetically related to celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes – and since there are many drugs under development and some on the market already for the same gene targets, new treatments for AA should be relatively close by. That makes Christiano happy. Not only because her research will be helping millions of people, but she herself may benefit. She, too, suffers from AA.

"It gives us hope, that some day there may be a cure for this condition," she says. " It gives pharmaceutical companies a target to go forward and start developing new drugs to fight AA."

This research was conducted using more than 1,000 samples from the National Alopecia Areata Registry, a patient registry for alopecia areata funded by the National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Columbia University Medical Center is one of five collection sites nationwide.  Christiano and her team uncovered eight genes that underpin alopecia areata. Among the eight genes, one stands out for its potential role in the onset of the disorder.

"This research is very exciting as alopecia areata affects a huge number of people worldwide," said Vicki Kalabokes, president and CEO of the National Alopecia Areata Foundation . "Hair loss is life-altering – sufferers, especially children, experience social stigma. It affects their quality of life and can lead to long-term psychosocial impact."

Alopecia areata usually starts with one or more small, round patches on the scalp and may eventually progress to total scalp hair loss (alopecia totalis) or complete body hair loss (alopecia universalis). In some people, hair may grow back in or fall out again at any time. Not only is the condition difficult to deal with physically, but emotionally the patient never knows when it will happen again.

Christiano's team looked for a correlation between how many genes (each gene comes in two pairs) people with different severities of alopecia areata carried, and found that people who carried 13-14 genes had disease that did not progress, while those with 16 or more most often progressed to alopecia universalis, or total baldness.
With this new data, Christiano and Columbia researchers are developing a genetic test that may eventually predict the severity of disease.

"The advantage of this large sample size is that we can be sure that this group of genes was identified with a high statistical significance and did not happen by chance," said Christiano. "The next step is to replicate this study in future research


soundoff (169 Responses)
  1. dod

    THe target is identified. Now kill it.

    July 1, 2010 at 12:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. shirley auffert

    MY DAUGHTER HAS HAD ALOPECIA AREATA FOR 9 YEARS. AT TIMES THE HAIR STARTS TO COME BACK IN AND THEN SHE LOSES IT AGAIN. IT IS VERY HARD FOR HER AS SHE HAS 3 CHILDREN AND THEREFORE IS VERY BUSY, SO SHE WEARS A WIG AT ALL TIME. PLEASE ENROLL HER IN AA AS SHE NEEDS THE SUPPORT. HER NAME IS CHRISTINA COMPSTON 824 S DUNN MARYVILLE MO 64468

    July 1, 2010 at 12:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. reality check

    Hair today, gone tomorrow. What's important is; what have you done to offer more fulfillment to yours and your loved ones' lives? Hollywood make-overs are not important and tend not to add enrichment to the human condition.

    July 1, 2010 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Cassie

    I have had alopecia since I was five. It started out as patchy areas on my scalp and now 20 years later, I have lost all the hair on my head. I am so excited about this new information. I have come to terms with this desease and have been able to lead a happy, successful life. But I have a 2 1/2 month old son and I would like to hope for treatment for him if he has it as well.

    July 1, 2010 at 12:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Tooty

    Can I just say, to you men who have regular ol' baldness and are so terribly terribly upset about it? DEAL. Let it go and focus on better investments re: your looks - hit the gym, get some clothes that fit, see dentist regularly, etc. And then move around in the world with confidence. There are millions of bald guys out there who are married or otherwise happily gettin' it on a regular basis so don't tell yourself it's not possible.

    July 1, 2010 at 12:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • reality check

      Good advice for bald women, as well.

      July 1, 2010 at 12:54 | Report abuse |
    • Melanie

      This is to Reality Check – Wrong!!! People who have ALOPECIA is quite different for male pattern baldness!!!! Children suffer from alopecia too!!! It is extremely heartbreaking to see a little girl or little boy lose their hair due to AT, AU or AA!!! I have been a lucky one who has suffered with AA since my late teens – but my hair loss has gone into remission 3 times – that makes me the lucky one!!!! Imagine – if you have a heart – being an outgoing teenager girl and all of a sudden your hair starts falling out – globs of it – it is all over your pillow case every morning – it is all over your hands when you wash your hair – tons of it is in your hairbrush everyday!!! Imagine – having to endure being held down by your doctor's nurse and a love one as the doctor is injection 100's of shots in your head each month on all the the quarter size or fist size areas of hairloss!!! Imagine having to keep your hair very short or wear a scarf or even a wig for years – because have long hair and watching it fall out in your heads at any even moment – because no one is absolutely sure what causes this disease to start or go into remission. Like I said – I am a lucky AA suffering as I have responded to treatment – their are millions of people around the world who don't!!!!

      July 1, 2010 at 13:18 | Report abuse |
    • Melanie

      Sorry for all the typos in my original reply... I was in a hurry....

      People who suffer from ALOPECIA is quite different then those with male patterned baldness!!!! Children suffer from alopecia too!!! It is extremely heartbreaking to see a little girl or little boy lose their hair due to AT, AU or AA!!! I have been a lucky one who has suffered with AA since my late teens – but my hair loss has gone into remission 3 times – that makes me the lucky one!!!! Imagine – being an outgoing teenager or child and all of a sudden your hair starts falling out – globs of it – it is all over your pillow case every morning – it is all over your hands when you wash your hair – tons of it is in your hairbrush everyday!!! You try to rearrange your hairstyle every morning to cover the baldspots so you can face the world. Imagine – having to endure being held down by your doctor's nurse and a love one as the doctor is injecting 100's of shots in your head each month on all the the quarter size or fist size areas of hairloss!!! Imagine having to keep your hair very short or wear a scarf or even a wig for years – because having long hair and watching it fall out in your hands at any even moment is excruciating – because no one is absolutely sure what causes alopecia to start or go into remission. Like I said – I am a lucky AA sufferer as I have responded to treatment since my early 30's thru a doctor in NYC (Dr. Lewenberg (anyone can google his website) – their are millions of people around the world who don't respond to any kind of treatment.

      July 1, 2010 at 14:01 | Report abuse |
  6. Random Neurons

    Homeopathy medicine has been curing AA for years. i had AA, i immediately consulted homeopathy Dr here in India. i am completely cured. Allopathy is not the only form for treating a disease.

    July 1, 2010 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Tim

    Tooty, that's easy for you too say, I have male pattern baldness and I hate it! Thank God for baseball caps. I really don't care what other people think, I only care what I think, and I hate being bald. I want my hair back and on my head, not my back.

    July 1, 2010 at 13:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. BaldisBeautiful

    Like many other stories, my wife has AU that surfaced about 18 years ago. Only had a little hair crop up when pregnant then it vanished as soon as the babies were born (which made us think it was hormonal).

    She suffers in the heat with a wig (don't know how she does it); which gives her some level of self confidence; but just not the same as the real deal. She's only in her 30's and has resigned to wearing wigs and drawing eyebrows for the rest of her life. As a show of support, I shaved my head about 10 years ago and have kept the hair off ever since. I won't grow it until hers grows back (although maybe mine won't be as think as it used to be...if I ever do grow it back!)

    I can't imagine what it's like for women on the inside, but I will say that you're all still sexy to me!

    July 1, 2010 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joan

      My hair loss started during my second pregnancy with only a small spot, for which I received cortisone injections. Then, after I had my baby, within three months, all of it fell out. Then, I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes. It was devastating. But, I too have a wonderful husband who is very supportive. I then had a third child but did not have any hair come back. It is definitely autoimmune.

      At any rate, I suffer from the heat very much. Please tell your wife about these things that I have found helpful. One, is called "headline it." It fits into your wig and absorbs the sweat so that it is not running down your face. You can get it at Headcovers.com or wig stores on line. I shop at Wowwigs.com. They have good prices and nice wigs. I also just bought something called "frogg toggs chilly pad". It is a towel that you wet and it stays cool. It is great.

      I hope this helps her somewhat.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:38 | Report abuse |
    • Wishing

      You are a very special guy and your wife is a blessed woman. I have not had her fortune in finding a man so supportive. My ex was very cruel and demeaning about my condition which makes me feel like noone will ever be able to look past my AU and see the real me. Thank you for letting me know that real men exist out there. Yall are a true inspiration. God bless you!

      February 11, 2012 at 23:00 | Report abuse |
  9. Richard Schlabach

    I too suffer from AA and in remissin now. I do truly believe its genetic and stress related that stimulates it. First Time I noticed I had it was going through a divirce, I was about 26 then. Since then, its come back about once a year in patches around my head and legs and arms. My doctor didnt even now what it was unitl i did my own reseach. My legs are only suffering now, but thats much better then my head. Please contact me via email at wtp75@yahoo.com if I can help out with any testing if any treatments out there. Peace to all, and live stress free if you can 🙂

    July 1, 2010 at 13:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Nicky

    Interestingly in the article nor in any of the posts does anyone identify what celiac disease is. I had a bout with AA about 15 years ago and lost a huge circle of hair on the top of my head. As a woman who always had long thick beautiful hair it was shocking and really affected my self esteem. I had a series of shots and the hair grew back. In those 15 years i discovered that i had gluten intolerance which is associated with Celiac. Basically the only cure is to NOT eat any wheat products. I believe that is a huge to this puzzle and would recommend that anyone suffering from AA get tested for Celiac or try to wheat free diet for a few weeks and see if you get any relief. There is no cure for Celiac except to not eat wheat. Since i have gone wheat free i have had no bouts with AA.

    July 1, 2010 at 13:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Natasha

      Thank you SO much for this post! After a bad doctor's visit I had to start doing some research on my own (then you can request specific tests instead of hoping your doctor is "on the ball"). The connection between Celiac and AA is one that everyone should be aware of.

      December 15, 2011 at 00:21 | Report abuse |
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    Good News!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    July 1, 2010 at 13:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. AS

    I too have been a long time suffer of alopecia. I've been without hair for 20 years now. I'm 45. It's so painful as a woman to live like this because I feel like I'm missing out on being the real me. I prefer not to draw attention to myself because of my condition. I miss the days of being able to swim with my head under the water or going on a roller coaster and I can't stand windy days. I do hope that one day they find a cure. I am happy to say that I am very fortunate that I do have a wonderful husband and sons who have always been very caring and loving and other than having this problem, I'm in great health and spirits. Maybe one day I'll be able to do all those things I used to enjoy and didn't appreciate when I had hair.

    July 1, 2010 at 15:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. sonya

    I'm constantly learning about how pervasive autoimmune disease is. The cause of hair loss is tied to so many abnormalities that I befuddles me. My hair began thinning as I saw strands slip away. But, it's not AA. I was so depressed. Hang in there AA sufferers! My issue related to Hashimoto's, which is another autoimmune disease involving the thyroid. I found an article about the correlation of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance and autoimmune thyroid disease. Now, I read here that AA is related to Celiace disease!!! Wow. I've reduced intake of gluten just to be on the safe side. Here's the link in case anyone is interested. http://thyroid.about.com/cs/latestresearch/a/celiac.htm

    Hugs to all who suffer.

    July 1, 2010 at 16:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. linda carraway

    I have several autoimmune diseases,Hypothyroid,vitilago, alepcia and endometriose. ANd my dad died from nonhodgkins lympoma. I would love to be checked out ,they can have all the blood they want just as long as they help everyone that have these diseases ASAP!!!!!!!

    July 1, 2010 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fasil

      Hi, dearest! I was JUST thiinkng about you yesterday!! I hope you are doing wonderfully. Your hair has mostly grown back?!? That is wonderful!!!! I so hope you can make it to the group when you are here in May! We are going to discuss how often we want to meet at today's meeting. It is going to be either once or twice per month, though. I will let you know! Send me an email when you have a second to let me know what dates you will be here. xoxo

      May 24, 2012 at 07:24 | Report abuse |
  15. lilymama7

    I was reading alot of these threads. I have had alopecia since I was 7, I am 31 now. I found Alopecia World online and it has been amazing. I just wanted to tell all of you to get on there. You can find Great discussions and friends in your area. Check it out! http://www.alopeciaworld.com

    July 22, 2010 at 12:04 | Report abuse | Reply
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  21. Recent Alopecia Areata Sufferer at age 42

    Interesting, the connection between celiac disease and alopecia. My first half-dollar size bald spot emerged and all my blood work came back normal including the thyroid test. But there is a slight abnormality that might be autoimmune related, and the doctor ordered a test for Lupus. I think I will also get tested for celiac disease since my sister found out she had this around 2 years ago. I am also wondering if turning 40 has anything to do with this, since both our conditions emerged in our 40's.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.