Scientists discover ‘why stress turns hair white’

This news article — published this week in — is an example of the gene-environment interactions theme of these GEITP pages. In this case, the environmental signal is “stress”, and the genes that respond to this signal include a pathway that increases risk of turning one’s hair white. The scientific paper can be found in Nature online.

The protein that is released during stress was identified as cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK). Although authors propose that “perhaps targeting the CDK gene might prevent stress-induced grey hair, it must be kept in mind that “CDK” is not a single gene but rather represents at least five genes. Moreover, this complex is involved in dozens of other critical-life pathways. So, to block this drug (trying to prevent grey hair) — might be more than a little bit naïve. ☹

Scientists discover ‘why stress turns hair white’

· 22 January 2020


Scientists say they may have discovered why stress makes hair turn white, and a potential way of stopping it frim happening — without reaching for the dye.

In experiments on mice, stem cells that control skin and hair color became damaged after intense stress.

In a chance finding, dark-furred mice turned completely white within weeks.

The US and Brazilian researchers said this avenue was worth exploring further — perhaps to develop a drug that might prevent hair color loss during our normal aging process. Men and women can go grey any time from their mid-30s, with the timing of parental hair color change giving most of the clues on when.

Although it’s mostly down to the natural aging process and genes, stress can also play a role. But scientists were not clear exactly how stress affects the hairs on our heads.

Researchers behind the study, published in Nature, from the Universities of Sao Paulo and Harvard, believed the effects were linked to melanocyte stem cells, which produce melanin and are responsible for hair and skin color. And while carrying out experiments on mice, they stumbled across evidence this was the case. “We now know for sure that stress is responsible for this specific change to your skin and hair, and how it works,” says Prof Ya-Cieh Hsu, research author from Harvard University.
‘Damage is permanent’

Pain in mice triggered the release of adrenaline and cortisol, making their hearts beat faster and causing their blood pressure to rise, which affects the nervous system and causes acute stress. This process then increased the rate of depletion of stem cells that produce melanin in hair follicles.

“I had expected stress was bad for the body,” said Prof Hsu. “But the detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined. After just a few days, all the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost. And, once they’re gone, you can’t regenerate pigment any more — the damage is permanent.”

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