Genetics Gray Hair: In a recent study at NYU Langone Medical Center, researchers uncovered a crucial relationship between Wnt signaling – a network of proteins that are responsible for controlling many of the body’s processes – and hair pigmentation. According to Mayumi Ito, PhD – assistant professor at NYU Langone – the research “discovered that Wnt signaling is essential for co-ordinated actions of these two stem cell lineages [epithelial and melanocytes stem cells] and critical for hair pigmentation.”
In other words, an inappropriate Wnt signaling can trigger the graying hair process – and that could hold the key to understanding the role of genetics in producing gray hair.
The researchers used mice to experiment with the inhibition of Wnt signaling pathways. When the Wnt pathways in the mice were prevented from signaling the production of melanocytes within the hair follicles, researchers noticed that hair growth slowed or stopped altogether; additionally, melanocytes halted the production of hair pigmentation, which effectively caused the mice to develop gray hair follicles.
This not only means that the genetic codes contained within your cells can halt the Wnt pathways from signaling to melanocytes: which is an inevitable part of the aging process, scientists are contemplating the role of stem cell research learning how to prevent gray hair altogether.
According to the researchers, Wnt signalling is critical for hair pigmentation. However forced activation leading to premature differentiation – which occurs during aging – leads to the exhaustion of the melanocyte stem cells, preventing them from replenishing themselves thereby leading to graying.
Dr. Ito further summed up the study’s findings: “The human body has many types of stem cells that have the potential to regenerate other organs. The methods behind communication between stems cells of hair and color during hair replacement may give us important clues to regenerate complex organs containing many different types of cells.”
Other Research has also suggested that genetics play a role in the amount of melanocytes that are present in our hair follicles. In a study conducted by Harvard Medical School and the Hokkaido University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan, it was discovered that as mice got older, they had fewer melanocytes as a result of the aging process. As we have similar hair follicles to mice, this research implies that our genetics could play a role in our graying hair processes, both with regards to the number of melanocytes produced, and the strength of Wnt signaling pathways.
While we may be many years away from utilizing stem cells to invigorate weakening Wnt pathways – an inevitable part of the aging process – this exciting research does suggest that one day we can manipulate our genetic code to abolish one of the most obvious signs of aging: gray hair. Who knows, we could all one day still have that glorious head of dark hair even when we are well into our eighties.