New research from the National Institutes of Health at the University of Alabama in Birmingham found a link between chronic illness or stress and gray hair. Study results are available in a paper in PLOS on May 3, 2018.
In it, the authors explain how the immune response affects the MITF protein. This is a substance that controls the interferon response in stem cells and prevents hair color loss. The researchers found that hair turns gray when the MITF protein stops working.
“This new discovery suggests that genes that control pigment in hair and skin also work to control the innate immune system,” states William Pavan, a study co-author.
The immune system defends the body against bacteria, viruses, and other threats. Threatened cells produce interferons. These are molecules that signal other cells to activate the genes that stop viruses from spreading. In doing so, they help protect the body.
During their study, the research team discovered that the graying process is involved with immune dysregulation. The MITF protein affects the genes that warn the body of infection. It also seems to influence the genes that influence hair color.
When a foreign substance attacks the body, the immune system starts to fight it and sends interferons to warn the other cells. The MITF not only regulates the function of the melanocytes, but it also controls the interferon.
If the interferons stop working in the melanocytes, it can result in a graying process. Studies showed that the artificial activation of the immune system in genetically predisposed mice also accelerated the graying process.
According to Melissa Harris, Ph.D., author and assistant professor of biology at UAB, studying gray hair is an easy way of observing dysfunctions in melanocyte stem cells.
The collected data implies that the genes which control hair pigmentation also control innate immunity. These latest results could help researchers find new ways of treating immune disorders, such as vitiligo, a condition that causes discolored patches of skin.
Researchers add that an infection alone does not explain gray hair, but the latest data may help understand the effect of genes on aging.