Sickness, stress may turn your hair grey

Alicia Farmer
May 5, 2018

Our immune system is constantly defending us against viruses and bacteria, prompting cells under attack to produce signaling molecules called interferons.

The researchers that conducted this study tested the gray hair in mice which is how they discovered the link between the innate immune system and the the MITF factor, which is a protein that also keeps interferon in check.

For years, gray hair was associated with old age but for there are some people who would get premature gray hair at a young age. Interferons tell other cells to turn on the gene expression that prevents viruses from replicating, and trigger immune effector cells that protect the body.

In melanocytes, the researchers found, the interferon response is kept in check by MITF, which is far better known for its role in regulating the many functions within melanocytes.

She said melanocytes deposit pigment colour in the hair shaft and if the Melanogenesis Associated Transcription Factor (MITF) can not control the effects of interferon on melanocytes, greying occurs.

The report was published online May 3 in the journal PLoS Biology.

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The connection between hair pigmentation and innate immune regulation was initially a bit surprising.

Melissa Harris, lead author of the study and an assistant professor in UAB's Biology Department, said in a statement, "Genomic tools allow us to assess how all of the genes within our genome change their expression under different conditions, and sometimes they change in ways that we don't anticipate". We are interested in genes that affect how our stem cells are maintained over time.

An overactive immune response, which can occur with viral infections, could result in sudden hair graying, according to research in mice. If we didn't have such cells, we would have gray hair. Moreover, when innate immune signaling was simulated in rodent models susceptible to losing hair pigmentation, more gray hairs were observed.

Because MITF turns out to be a "critical suppressor of innate immunity" and can cause loss of pigment producing cells, there may be implications for understanding vitiligo as well, the authors conclude.

Vitiligo, which causes discoloured skin patches, affects between 0.5 percent to 1 per cent of all humans. Moreover, some people have also stated that they have gray hair due to some kind of tragedy or due to stress in daily life. What's more, mice genetically predisposed to developing gray hair had this response even when the immune response was turned on artificially.

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