Researchers at the National Institutes of health and the University of Alabama, Birmingham offered insights into why some people’s hair may turn grey in response to a serious illness or chronic stress.
A new study on mice, published in the open access journal PLOS Biology discovered a connection between
the genes that contribute to hair colour and the genes that notify our bodies of a pathogenic infection.
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 other cells to take action by turning on the expression of genes that inhibit viral
replication, activate immune effector cells, and increase host defences.
Melissa Harris, the lead author and assistant professor within the Department of Biology at UAB found a
connection between hair pigmentation and innate immune regulation.
In this study, an unexpected link was found between grey hair, the transcription factor MITF or Melanogenesis
Associated Transcription Factor, and innate immunity.
MITF is best known for its role in regulating the many functions within melanocytes.
The researchers found that MITF also serves to keep the melanocytes’ interferon response in check.
Harris said melanocyte stem cells were essential to hair colour as they produced the melanocytes that were
responsible for making and depositing pigment into the hair shaft.
They found that if MITF’s control of the interferon response was lost in melanocyte stem cells, hair-graying resulted.
Furthermore, if innate immune signaling is artificially activated in mice that are predisposed for getting gray
hair, increased numbers of gray hairs are also produced.
“This new discovery suggests that genes that control pigment in hair and skin also work to control the innate
immune system,” said William Pavan, study co-author and chief of the Genetic Disease Research Branch at
National Human Genome Research Institute under National Institute of Health.
“These results may enhance our understanding of hair graying. More importantly, discovering this connection
will help us understand pigmentation diseases with innate immune system involvement like vitiligo,”
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