Researchers at the University of Minnesota say a common health food supplement appears to help control the urges of people who compulsively pull out their hair, a finding that could help in the treatment of other compulsive behaviors.
Dr. Jon Grant gave a common over-the-counter dietary supplement, N-acetylcysteine, to people with trichotillomania and found their urges to pull out hair decreased dramatically.
Grant says the supplement appears to quell a chemical in the brain, glutamate, that controls excitement. Controlling that chemical, he says, could provide a path for treating other obsessive-compulsive behaviors, like constant hand-washing, and maybe addictive behaviors like gambling.
Grant says he wanted to study hair-pulling, in part, because of the stigma it carries.
"This starts very young for people, so if you're in high school and you're pulling out your hair - it's hard enough to live in an appearance-based world when everything looks fairly normal," he said. "But if you're walking around with bald patches around, you're going to go through kind of a living hell."
Trichotillomania affects an estimated 2 to 4 percent of the population, usually women. In this study, 50 people with trichotillomania - who had had reported having no luck with other treatments - were given N-Acetylcysteine every day for six weeks. Doses were then increased for another six weeks. Of those who took the supplement, 56 percent reported fewer urges, according to Grant, while only 16 percent of those taking placeboes noticed an improvement.
The study is published in the July 2009, issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.