New Study Examines Why Some People Get Gray Hair Earlier Than Others

Sunday, 06 May 2018 - 2:56PM
Sunday, 06 May 2018 - 2:56PM
New Study Examines Why Some People Get Gray Hair Earlier Than Others
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"Going gray" is a pretty standard part of getting old, but there are always unlucky souls who start seeing patches of their hair turn gray before everyone else.

Now, we can't help you do much about your early gray patch (dye it, we guess?) but a new study offers an explanation for what specifically causes hair to go gray when it does. According to the research, published in PLOS Biology, it all comes down to a certain gene that also manages your immune system.

To quickly throw a biology recap at you, your hair/skin/eye color is regulated by melanin, which comes from melanocyte cells in the body. As you age, your body tends to lose melanocyte cells early, and it would make sense if losing melanocyte cells earlier meant you go gray earlier - but to the researchers' surprise, that wasn't the case. It's a little more complicated than that.

For their experiments, the researchers used mice who'd been bred to have high amounts of MITF (melanogenesis associated transcription factor), a gene inside melanocyte cells which tells the cell to make melanin. Speaking to Gizmodo, the study's lead author Melissa Harris from the University of Alabama at Birmingham explained the study:

Opening quote
"My lab harnesses the power of mouse models of hair graying to better understand stem cells and aging. The stem cells we study are the melanocyte stem cells in the hair follicle, which are the stem cells that are essential for producing melanocytes."
Closing quote

Mice with lots of MITF would become prematurely gray, since they would burn out melanocyte cells faster with all the melanin they make. But breeding mice to have less MITF still made them go gray just as quickly.

That's because, as mentioned earlier, MITF also effects your immune system, and less MITF ended up with more immune system proteins called "interferons." When mice had too much, the interferons attacked the melanocyte cells. Neither situation stopped the gray hair from setting in.

There's still a lot more research that needs to be done, but from the sound of it, a balanced level of the MITF gene could keep you from getting gray hair especially early. The gene also seems to have a connection to vitiligo, a condition which causes discolored skin.

But for now, there isn't an effective way to fight off gray hair besides dying it. If you do a good job, nobody but you will know.
Science News