Study links gray hair with immune system activity, viral infection

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The lead author, Kaustubh Adhikari of UCL's Cell and Developmental Biology Department, said in a statement at the time, "We already know several genes involved in balding and hair colour, but this is the first time a gene for graying has been identified in humans, as well as other genes influencing hair shape and density".

"These results may enhance our understanding of hair graying", he said. In mice, if MITF is absent during melanocyte development, their fur lacks pigment.

Hair can turn gray when the MIFT's are unable to regulate this interferon response.

Melanocytes only live for three to five years, but melanocyte stem cells produce new ones.

A new research has revealed that illness or stress may also be responsible for grey hair.

According to the researchers, when a body is under attack from a virus or bacteria, the innate immune system detects them and responds by producing signaling molecules called interferons. Interferons signal to neighbouring cells, telling them to protect themselves.

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.

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Hair color is linked to the melanocyte stem cells that is found in hair follicles.

"We like to study gray hair because it's an easy read-out of melanocyte stem cell dysfunction", Harris added. But the researchers found that MITF also serves to keep the melanocytes' interferon response in check.

For their experiments, the researchers used mice who'd been bred to have high amounts of MITF (melanogenesis associated transcription factor), a gene inside melanocyte cells which tells the cell to make melanin.

The study can not explain why a fright or severe illness might lead to rapid graying, but it may provide insights into the skin condition vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder in which the skin loses its color, and melanoma, a cancer of skin pigment cells, the study team writes in PLoS Biology.

"This new discovery suggests that genes that control pigment in hair and skin also work to control the innate immune system", said Dr. Pavan.

A test was carried out on mice by the researchers showed that graying of hair can occur due to an overactive immune system. Dr. Harris thinks the mechanism may explain why some people get gray hair in young age.