The hair-pulling disorder few people have heard of -- trichotillomania -- gained notoriety last week after a Blaine girl posted a YouTube video about her frustrations with the disorder and got the attention of Motley Crue rocker Nikki Sixx.
Turns out, there is another local connection to the disorder; the University of Minnesota's Dr. Jon Grant is one of the top researchers nationally in the search for treatments. Grant said his research is funded out of his U of M budget, because there isn't a lot of public grant money available for this type of disorder.
"It never seems life-threatening to people, but the people who suffer from it, their quality of life is impaired," he said. "You're surrounded by people who have it and nobody talks about it. It probably affects about 2 percent of the country. People can pull hair from anywhere so you don't always notice it."
An earlier study found that a dietary supplement reduced symptoms in 55 percent of people with the disorder.
"That is pretty good, but not good enough," Grant said. "Historically, people used antidepressants and they never really worked. So we've had to think outside the box a little bit."
Now Grant has an ongoing trial using the generic drug naltrexone -- the same drug he has studied in the treatment of other impulse control disorders such as compulsive shoplifting. Most signs point to trichotillomania stemming from a chemical problem in the brain. The disorder does seem to run in families, he added, and is more common among women. Adolescence is a common starting point.
"Even when it runs in families, which it does to some extent, the young person who is doing it has no clue that her mother was doing it, because her mother was doing it in secrecy too," Grant said.
The story of 12-year-old Chloe McCarty sounded familiar. Stress often makes the disorder worse, so it didn't surprise Grant that her symptoms would emerge as she made the often stressful transition to middle school.
"Young people, when they have this problem, oh my goodness the amount of ridicule ... " he said. "Even their parents don't understand what is going on. Other kids are very quick to mock it. Most of these people who have it are very bright folks. The rest of their lives are not that chaotic, but they simply cannot stop this one aspect."
Removing stress doesn't remove the desire to pull out hair, which is why treatment might be necessary. I asked Grant whether treatment would really be needed if people only pulled out eyebrows or nose hairs -- which wouldn't draw as much attention as pulling out the hair on their heads.
The answer, he said, depends more on how the hair-pulling makes people feel than what it does to their appearance. "It's really about how much distress it's causing people," he said. "Although you won't notice it, they don’t feel good about themselves."
Grant has enrolled roughly 40 people for his naltrexone study. The target is 60 people. For information about enrolling, Grant can be reached at 612-273-9736.