- Written by Michelle Roberts
- Digital Health Editor
US scientists think they may have discovered why hair turns gray as we age, citing pigment-making cells that lose the ability to mature.
Arrested development affects immature cells that would otherwise develop into melanocytes that give hair its natural color or shade.
A team from New York University (NYU) studied the process on mice, which have cells identical to the color of their fur.
They say the work could provide a basis for reversing the graying process.
According to the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD), the action on melanocytes may also aid our understanding and treatment of certain cancers and other medical conditions as well.
How does hair turn gray?
We grow and lose hair all the time – it’s a natural cycle that happens throughout life.
New hair grows from hair follicles in the skin, where pigment-producing melanocytes are also located.
Melanocytes are constantly degrading and also regenerating. New cells are made from stem cells and it is these cells that researchers believe are “stuck” in limbo in people whose hair has turned gray.
The NYU Langone Health team used special lab scans and techniques to study the aging process of cells.
As hair ages, falls out and then grows back frequently, the increasing numbers of melanocyte stem cells become sluggish in their work.
Stem cells stop circulating around the follicle and become fixed, thus failing to mature into fully formed melanocytes. With no pigment produced, the hair turns gray, white or silver.
“Our study adds to our basic understanding of how melanocyte stem cells color hair,” said study lead author Dr. Ke Sun, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Langone Health, USA. for Nature magazine.
“The newly discovered mechanisms raise the possibility of the same fixed placement of melanocyte stem cells in humans. If this is the case, they offer a potential pathway to reversing or preventing graying.”
This isn’t the first time that scientists have suggested that graying of hair may be a partially reversible process.
Some researchers claim that stress may contribute to: human hair turning white, and they suggested that de-anxiety might restore the pigmentation process—at least for a while.
Other research suggests GeneticsOur DNA, in part, determines when we turn gray.
While some prefer to hide their gray hair with dye, others embrace it. Some even choose to go natural and prematurely color hair silver, white, or gray.
according to Glamor MagazineSilver hair is “the spring hair color trend that cool girls are rocking.”
“We spotted one shade, in particular, taking off. Oyster gray is the fresh, cool, and pearly color trend that’s been popping up all over Instagram,” the article says.
One hairstylist, Luke Hersheson, recently told British Vogue: “At one time it was better not to have gray hair, but now we don’t equate gray hair with being ‘old’ – a lot of people do.
“After lockdown, there is a sense of freedom – many have had gray hair because they couldn’t see their colour, but they came out the other side and really enjoyed the change.”
Experts advise against pulling out “rogue” gray hair. It will not prevent the next follicle that grows from the same follicle from becoming grey. If you damage the hair follicles, it can be more difficult for new hair to grow in, which means you may be left with thinner hair or even bald spots.
Dr Laila Asfour of the British Association of Dermatologists told the BBC the hair dye business was big: “The global hair dye market is expected to be worth $33.7 billion by 2030. There is clearly a demand.
“The obvious implication of this research, when it comes to the general population, is that it means we are one step closer to finding a way to reverse our gray hair.
“But the results of this study help the medical field better understand other conditions where these stem cells may have a role — for example, understanding the underlying nature of the deadliest type of skin cancer we treat called melanoma.”
It may also help with a medical condition called alopecia areata, in which the immune system attacks the hair and causes it to fall out. She explained that sometimes the hair grows white in these patients.
And it could give more clues about vitiligo – a skin condition in which patients develop white patches of skin. Scientists have tried surgically placing hair follicles into the affected areas to help regenerate color from the pigment in the hair follicles.
“More research is needed,” says Dr. Asfour.
Dr. Yusr Al Nuaimi of the British Hair and Nail Association said that scalp health is important to support good head hair growth, especially as we age.
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