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Communication Breakdown: Latest Discovery in Hair Loss Research

If you consider the importance of hair to the survival of mammals, you’ll appreciate that natural selection helped develop a solution for hair loss. Can we use nature’s solution to address pattern baldness in men and women? That’s what researchers are exploring.

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine found that hair follicles communicate with each other to ensure hair distribution remains constant and symmetrical. They published their findings in the paper, “A multi-scale model for hair follicles reveals heterogeneous domains driving rapid spatiotemporal hair growth patterning,” which appears in eLife, an open-access journal focusing on the life and biomedical sciences.

Hair or fur has been critically important for survival of most animals – including the primates from which humans evolved. Therefore, it only makes sense that mammals that had mechanisms throughout the body to ensure hair follicles could work together would have a greater likelihood of survival that those that didn’t.

Mammals developed a system called the ‘WNT-BMP signals,’ that enable the interaction between hair follicles and this interaction occurs in skin throughout the entire body. At a molecular level, waves of Wnt signals shoot from hair to hair to stimulate hair growth. BMP signals shut effectively halt growth by shutting down the stem cells in the hair follicles.

The hair follicles on the head of a bear communicate with the hair follicles on its back and legs and vice versa.

“We showed that although different signaling ‘dialects’ may exist between belly and back skin, for instance, all hairs can understand one another through the use of similar ‘words’ and ‘sentences’, Plikus told reporter James Rodger of the Birmingham Mail.

This system ensures animals such as that bear are protected from the climate and the surrounding environment.

However, for most human cultures, it has been thousands of years since hair has been necessary for survival. Humans and even Neanderthals mastered the ability to derive heat from fire and used pelts from other animals for clothing. Over hundreds of generations it became less important for our hair follicles to communicate. We might not like it if bald patches form, but it isn’t a life or death matter like it would be for most animals in the wild.

As a result, in human baldness the hair follicles on the scalp apparently do not communicate or work together. Communication breaks down and each hair follicle grows independently.

The discovery by UCI’s Maksim Plikus, assistant professor of developmental and cell biology, and Qing Nie, professor of mathematics, that this process is regulated by a single molecular mechanism that adjusts by skin region to ensure efficient hair growth could have great implications for the hair restoration community.

“If communication between nonbalding and balding regions can be reactivated, hair growth signals can then start spreading across the entire head skin, preventing regional baldness,” Plikus said. He says scalp hair potentially could be stimulated to grow again through medication to resume molecular signaling.

As we always caution when exciting discoveries are made, people experiencing hair loss today should not expect a cure anytime soon. In fact, it will probably be the end of the 2020s before cell-based discoveries such as this begin to work their way into treatment protocols. In the meantime, we are proud to be helping hundreds of patients annually with FDA-approved medications and artistic hair transplants.

We at Arocha Hair Restoration also want to acknowledge the contributions of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and UCI’s Center for Complex Biological Systems, all of whom provided support for the research.

If you have questions, or if you would like to schedule a consultation with Dr. Arocha to talk more about your options, please contact us today.