Actor Will Smith’s physically abused comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars stage for a joke the latter cracked about Smith’s wife. Now, Jada Pinkett Smith does not wear a cropped hair look. She suffers from a health condition where the immune system has failed, better known as an “autoimmune disorder.” In Jada’s case, the body’s immune system attacks hair follicles, resulting in hair loss. This malady is called “alopecia areata.”
Normally, the hair follicles have what is known as the immune privilege, which means they are protected from the immune system. But this privilege is breached in patients of alopecia.
In most cases the hair loss takes place in patches, but in more extreme types, an individual may end up losing hair from all over the body including eyebrows, and eyelashes.
T cell lymphocytes – a type of white blood cells – gather around hair follicles, causing inflammation and subsequent hair loss.
Alopecia areata is not contagious. Research shows strong evidence of genetic association with increased risk for alopecia areata, identifying at least four regions in the genome that are likely to influence the risk factors of the condition.
The condition does not have a cure. However, treatment includes using corticosteroids to dampen the immune systems or using topical drugs for encouraging hair growth. Although alopecia areata isn’t usually a serious medical condition, it can cause mental distress, social phobia, anxiety, and depression since the hair loss can significantly impact a person’s appearance.
The condition affects 0.1%–0.2% of the population worldwide. Patients with alopecia also tend to have a slightly higher incidence of ailments related to the immune system, such as asthma, allergies, atopic dermatitis, and hypothyroidism.
Researchers across the world continue to study the condition, its underlying causes and possible treatments. A study published this month in the NEJM showed that in two phase-3 trials involving patients with severe alopecia areata, “oral baricitinib” — a drug for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis — was able to help improve hair regrowth in 36 weeks.