Amino acid could prevent compulsive hair pulling, say researchers

By staff reporter

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An antioxidant commonly found in supplements could help people suffering from a compulsive hair-pulling disorder, University of Minnesota scientists have found.

A study published in the July issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, ​one of the JAMA/Archives journals, reports that N-acetylcysteine (NAC) was found to reduce symptoms of the condition, known as trichotillomania.

"N-acetylcysteine is an amino acid, is available in health-food stores, is cheaper than most insurance co-payments and seems to be well-tolerated. N-acetylcysteine could be an effective treatment option for people with trichotillomania,"​ wrote the authors, referring to the amino acid in their study as a ‘medication’.

NAC’s disease fighting role

Because it enhances the production of the enzyme glutathione, NAC is also thought to both stave off disease and play an important role in boosting the immune system.

It is already widely administered to protect the liver from paracetamol overdoses, which cause glutathione levels to drop, but it is also available in supplement form in Europe, recommended for preventing and treating a wide variety of ailments that may respond to its antioxidant properties.

Compulsive disorders

Trichotillomania, which has been researched for over two decades, has no currently approved treatment. It is a condition characterized by compulsive hair pulling, resulting in hair loss.

N-acetylcysteine has previously shown promise in the treatment of repetitive or compulsive disorders and acts on the glutamate system, the largest neurotransmitter system in the human brain, wrote authors Jon Grant and colleagues at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, Minneapolis.

Their 12-week, double-blind controlled trial involved 50 people suffering from the condition, mostly women and with an average age of 34.

Half of the participants received 1,200 milligrams to 2,400 milligrams of N-acetylcysteine per day for 12 weeks, while the other half received placebo.

At the end of the study period, those taking the amino cid had “significantly greater reductions in hair-pulling symptoms” than the placebo group.

"Fifty-six percent of patients 'much or very much improved' with N-acetylcysteine use compared with 16 percent taking placebo. Significant improvement was initially noted after nine weeks of treatment,"​ wrote the authors, who also noted that no adverse effects were reported.

They added that more research needs to be conducted on the long-term effects of the treatment.

More NAC findings

Another study conducted by Scientists at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh found that NAC may be able to help treat brain damage in boys by replenishing the body's levels of the powerful antioxidant glutathione.

The researchers showed in animal models that levels of glutathione, which protects brain cells from death when deprived of oxygen, drop by as much as 80 per cent in males after brain injury. When glutathione levels drop, brain cells die much more quickly.

The findings, presented in 2004 at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in San Francisco, showed that NAC could potentially be an effective treatment for any injury in a male in which the brain is deprived of oxygen, including cardiac arrest, drowning accidents and severe trauma.

However, news is not all good for the amino acid. Another study published in 2007 in the September issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation​, found that N-acetylcysteine could lead to pulmonary arterial hypertension,

Researchers from the University of Virginia Health System indicated the antioxidant can form a red blood cell-derived molecule that makes blood vessels think they are not getting enough oxygen. This can lead to pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a condition characterized by high blood pressure in the arteries carrying blood to the lungs.

N-Acetylcysteine, a Glutamate Modulator, in the Treatment of Trichotillomania: A Double-blind, Placebo-Controlled Study.
Arch Gen Psychiatry 2009;66[7]:756-763
Authors: Jon E. Grant; Brian L. Odlaug; Suck Won Kim.

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