Not long ago, I was having dinner with a friend in his late 20s, and when the topic somehow turned to hair loss, his panic was palpable. “I don’t even want to talk about it,” he said, shuddering and putting a hand to his substantial curls. Now, there may be less for him—and other men—to worry about.
The cause of male patterned baldness, doctors have long believed, is found in the cluster of stem cells that normally exist inside each hair follicle. As long as the cells are healthy and abundant, so is hair. When they disappear, the hair goes with them. But a new study published on Jan. 4 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation suggests that things are subtler than that. (More on Time.com: Be Honest. Does this Study Make My Butt Look Big?)
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania looked at discarded pieces of scalp from 54 men seeking hair transplants, all but one of whom were not using medication meant to slow balding. The scalp samples were divided into two groups: some already hairless and some that retained hair. The researchers found that in both groups, the samples contained the same number of stem cells within the hair follicle — and that’s huge news in the baldness world.
Normally, the stem cells within each follicle transform into progenitor cells, which in turn produce thick hair strands. If the cells are somehow blocked or incapable of turning into progenitor cells, no hair is produced. The little bit that does remain is “miniaturized,” according to Dr. George Cotsarelis, chairman of the dermatology department at Penn’s School of Medicine and the co-author of the study, becoming so thin and fine it’s effectively invisible. (More on Time.com: World Too Confusing? Trust Your Gut)
If researchers can find a way to kick-start the dormant stem cells and thus regenerate the progenitor cells, baldness could be a thing of the past. But Cotsarelis warned that it’s too early for men to throw out the Rogaine or shake out the comb-over. Any treatment is still years away. Until then, simple self-acceptance is the best way to go.