Age-related baldness can be attributed to stem cell loss in hair follicles. A new study published in the journal Science on Feb. 5 may be a big step toward finding a cure for baldness.

Stem cells, cells that can change into any type of cell, are responsible for hair growth over time. Researchers from the Tokyo Medical and Dental University studied the skin of mice when they turned 18 months old, when they start losing hair.

These mice have fewer hair follicles, which were smaller and thinner than those in younger ones, implying that the original hair follicles may have been changed.

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Similar results were observed when another study was conducted on people, aged 55 to 70 years. The scientists discovered that, over time, the accumulated DNA deteriorated a collagen protein called COL17A1, which is important for keeping the hair follicle stem cells healthy.

When more stem cells are deprived of this protein, the hair follicles shrink and turn into epidermal keratinocytes, the same cell that composes the majority of the epidermis. The researchers believe that keeping the same amount of this collagen protein may combat hair loss in old age.

The team believes that the finding may be applicable to other uses beside hair treatment. This could yield the way for treatments that prevent diseases associated with old age.

The Guardian reports that a second study determined that hair follicle stem cells use a gene called Foxc1 to growing hair during hair cycle in adulthood, when the stem cells undergo different phases to sustain the stem cell population and create new hair.

In 2010 alone, 35 million men and 21 million women experienced hair loss in the US. British men are more prone to lose hair than any Europeans and the least likely to seek treatment. About 279,380 surgical hair restoration procedures have been carried out in 2010 and the cost added up to AU$2.6 billion (US$1.8 billion) worldwide in the same year.