By Sean Zucker –
Almost three-quarters of people between 45 and 65 years of age are affected by grey hair, according to a French study. The fact that this research was produced by beauty brand L’Oréal underscores the powerful impact greying and other aging signs have on the popular notion of beauty.
Despite the historic connection and in many cases concern over the impact of changing hair color, the root cause of greying is far from less clear. Now, a new study is linking the phenomenon to the condition of certain stem cells. The research may even hold the promise that greying isn’t inevitable.
Researchers at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine specifically focused on melanocyte stem cells, also known as McSCs. These cells were previously known to act as the primary mechanism in producing melanin pigment, which brings color to human eyes, skin and hair.
The NYU team noted that as hair follicles age, a significant amount of melanocyte stem cells get stuck in an undifferentiated state during which they lose their ability to mature and produce melanin. This progression was generally understood to be irreversible. Now, however, the study implies otherwise.
By inducing grey hair on rats, the NYU researchers found that certain microenvironment cues can trigger the McSCs in hair follicles to fluctuate between undifferentiated and differentiated states. Over the span of two years, the team physically plucked strands of these hairs repeatedly while tracking their McSC levels. Where a follicle had been pulled, the researchers found that the number of McSCs increased from 15 percent to almost 50 percent. In the hair that wasn’t plucked, the younger follicles’ McSCs kept moving around to gather protein signals and produce a consistently rich pigment.
“Our study adds to our basic understanding of how melanocyte stem cells work to color hair,” said Dr. Qi Sun, the study’s lead investigator. “The newfound mechanisms raise the possibility that the same fixed positioning of melanocyte stem cells may exist in humans. If so, it presents a potential pathway for reversing or preventing the greying of human hair by helping jammed cells to move again between developing hair follicle compartments.”
In simpler terms, these findings suggest that grey hair might not be permanent. “It is the loss of chameleon-like function in melanocyte stem cells that may be responsible for graying and loss of hair color,” added Dr. Mayumi Ito, the study’s senior investigator. “These findings suggest that melanocyte stem cell motility and reversible differentiation are key to keeping hair healthy and colored.”
While this may be good news for the millions of greying adults, the NYU study is far from a slam dunk when it comes to maintaining youthful hair colors. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other factors that impact hair color and its potential for fading. Harvard Health, in fact, reports that certain diseases such as vitiligo, alopecia areata or thyroid disease, as well as vitamin B12 deficiency, can cause hair to lose its color. Additionally, living a stressful lifestyle can result in hair prematurely greying. The outlet also confirms that genetics play a huge role in this process.
But to that point, grey hair is a natural development of life and aging so it’s probably wise not to stress over it. Especially considering that doing so will seemingly only make the problem worse.