There is a genetic component to alopecia areata, which means that heredity plays a role. In one out of five persons with alopecia areata, someone else in the family also has it. Those who develop alopecia areata for the first time after the age of thirty are less likely to have another family member with it. Those who develop their first patch of alopecia areata before the age of thirty are more likely to have other family members with it. Because of these truths, NAAF has focused a lot of its research into investigating the genetics of alopecia areata in hopes of determining what role genetics truly play in alopecia areata, including uncovering the mysteries of who is most susceptible and why.
Foundation of Genetic Research and Alopecia Areata
In the 1990’s, the scientific community as a whole made great strides in being able to answer questions about genetics. The Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health brought us access to a wealth of information. And there were tremendous advances in looking at single-gene disorders like cystic fibrosis. In single-gene disorders whoever gets the gene also gets the disease.
But alopecia areata is a polygenic disease, that is, it involves multiple genes and is therefore very complex. It is a bit like the many shades of gray; different genes in different combinations all play a role in this disease and researchers are working to untangle the web of these genetic relationships. This is much harder than looking at single genes. Prior to the completion of the Human Genome Project we were not even able to look at five or more genes in combination. The Human Genome Project and new gene technology has given geneticists the tools to step back and look globally at all the genes and identify hot spots.
As a result, the research studies that are now being designed for alopecia areata are focusing on large families, or what are called multiplex pedigrees, in which three or more people all have symptoms of alopecia areata. In preliminary studies we have found that alopecia areata has genes in common with other autoimmune diseases including psoriasis and arthritis.
Latest on Genetics and Alopecia Areata
Angela Christiano, PhD, of Columbia University in New York, and member of NAAF's Scientific Advisory Council, is one of several people involved in a comprehensive genetic analysis of people with alopecia areata. She is doing a genome-wide scan, looking at all the genes that comprise human beings, in a collection of family that have many family members with alopecia areata.
Learn more about the results of her recent research, as well as her plans for future genetics research here. Also take a look at:
Nature Journal Article