A group of researchers claim they found the real reason hair turns gray as we age, and that reason could offer an explanation to vitiligo patients’ skin troubles as well.
The study found that low levels of the immune protein called interferon are linked to developing gray hair.
A research paper on the intriguing findings was published Thursday in the journal PLOS Biology.
Lead author Melissa Harris of the University of Alabama at Birmingham explained that her team used mouse models to better understand the age-related changes in hair pigmentation.
Scientists focused on a special type of stem cells in the hair called melanocytes. The cells generated by these stem cells, also known as melanocytes, are the cells that produce pigmentation in the hair follicle.
- Melanocytes give the natural color of the hair, but as we age these cells get damaged by aging processes or illness.
- As a result, the newly grown hair no longer has its natural color; instead, it gets gray or white.
Viral Infections Can Trigger Premature Graying
Past studies have suggested that the MITF protein was behind the hair’s natural color. Those studies found that mice that had been genetically altered to grow gray fur prematurely had excess levels of the MITF protein. However, when scientists tweaked the mice to produce less MITF, the fur continued to become prematurely gray.
The latest study reached a different conclusion. UAB researchers found that MITF proteins may block the production of a virus-killing protein called interferon. Rodents with low levels of interferon started shedding melanocytes and developed gray fur faster when an anti-virus response was simulated.
It is unclear if the newly found mechanism affects humans the same way it affects mice. Dr. Harris thinks the mechanism may explain why some people get gray hair in young age. She explained that a person who is genetically predisposed to graying prematurely can get gray hair in young age shortly after a viral infection.
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