Health Talk: Werewolf syndrome

Before aliens, mutants, and robotic killing machines took over the world of fictional monsters, characters like Frankenstein and werewolves ruled fiction. Many people have heard of werewolves — one of the most famous being Harry Potter’s Professor Lupin — people who turn into wolf-like creatures when there is a full moon.

Although the werewolf is a myth, there is a disease called hypertrichosis, popularly called the werewolf syndrome, that is a rare inherited illness.

Hypertrichosis actually describes excessive hair growth in abnormal places on the body. An article in the Dermatology Online Journal describes that in normal humans, hair differentiates into lanugo, vellus, and terminal hair. Lanugo hair grows and sheds during fetal development and vellus hair immediately replaces it. Vellus hair is short, soft, and light and is seen over the face and arms of children. Terminal hair is longer and coarser and is found on the scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes. This type of hair comprises the hair pattern formed in puberty and adulthood.

The diagnosis of hypertrichosis is made based on hair pattern, analysis of hair type by histology, and genetics. Additionally, hypertrichosis is not caused by a disturbance in the amount of androgens the body secretes; hence a presence of excessive hair growth but normal androgen secretion may be an indication of hypertrichosis.

In hypertrichosis, the patient’s entire body is typically covered with light-colored hair that is most prominent on the shoulders, face, and ears. Hair length can reach up to a few centimeters.

Other physical anomalies can include a dismorphic triangular coarse face, or a long nose with a round tip. From genetic analysis of this disease, it seems that mutations of chromosome 8 are associated with hypertrichosis. However the true cause and genetic background of this disease are yet to be discovered.

As stated on, a person with congenital hypertrichosis lanuginosa will show, shortly after birth, prenatal lanugo hairs (which are usually shed before birth) over the entire body except the palms, soles, and the mucous membranes. This is one type of the disease and is especially rare. Yet, as stated on the Dermatology Online Journal, this was the disease that Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy had. The first recorded case of hypertrichosis, however, is believed to be that of Petrus Gonzales in 1556. He was taken to France initially as a gift for the nobles, and was educated once they realized he was quite intelligent. He subsequently had offspring with similar werewolf-syndrome features and this kindred was later known as the family of Ambras because their family portraits were discovered in Ambras castle, located in modern-day Austria.

Other types of the disease include hypertrichosis with gingival fibromatosis, where hair appears over the face, trunk, and eyebrows during childhood followed by gingival hyperplasia (overgrowth of the gum tissues). Naveoid hypertrichosis is an unusual case of hypertrichosis in that there is only one area where hair growth occurs.
This disease can occur at birth or even later in life and is characterized by hairy tufted ears, tails, or excessive beard growth in males and females with the illness.

Although there is the initial shock of having a child who is covered in hair, these children are able to live a long life and are able to procreate.

Some patients do develop other anomalies like dental problems, yet because this disease is so rare, with only 50 reported cases in the world since the Middle Ages, there could be other complications that have not yet been discovered or properly diagnosed.