Playing an influential role in appearance throughout American society, the value aging adults place on deterring hair grayness remains great. Although the dyeing of hair color can mask this sign of aging, the potential for a scientific cure for this phenomenon has never before been presented – until now.
In an international study led by University College London (UCL), the first gene for graying hair has been discovered, confirming that hair graying has a genetic component and is not solely environmental. The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, analyzed a sample of 6,630 volunteers from a cohort recruited in five Latin American countries to target new genes associated with hair physiognomies.1
“We already know several genes involved in balding and hair color 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,” explained Kaustubh Adhikari, PhD, the lead author of the study, in a statement.
Through their analysis, the researchers performed a categorical evaluation of men and women to assess hair shape, color, balding and graying, the presence of a monobrow, eyebrow and beard (in men) thickness. Participants were then genotyped and their information yielded significant correlation values for all the traits examined, with the highest heritability being estimated for hair color and the lowest for hair graying.2
“This is really the first study on the genetics of hair graying in humans,” further explained Adhikari. “A drug that has effects on the melanin-production pathway in hair follicles as the follicles develop internally might reduce the need to apply external hair dyes on the scalp hair after it comes out. This is certainly a research avenue worth pursuing.”
The identified and influential gene, known as IRF4, has been proven to help regulate the pigment responsible for hair color as well as the color of the skin and eyes, melanin.3
Hair graying is caused by an absence of melanin in hair so the scientists want to find out IRF4’s role in this process. Understanding how IRF4 influences hair graying could help the development of new cosmetic applications that change the appearance of hair as it grows in the follicle by slowing or blocking the graying of hair.
Additionally, according to UCL human geneticist Andres Ruiz-Linares, people with a certain version of this gene are predisposed to hair graying. This is because hair graying is not driven exclusively by genetics, but rather by a number of contributing factors such as stress or experiencing a traumatic event.
“As soon as you identify a cause, then you can create an effect to change something. Now there is a target to work with,” explained William Yates, MD, a hair-loss doctor and hair-replacement surgeon practicing at Dr. Yates Hair Science in Vernon Hills, Ill. “The gene identified [by UCL] accounts for 30% of people who are graying, mostly people with light color or blonde hair. It doesn’t appear to account for the other group of people with darker hair that gray.”
Seeing as that constantly dyeing hair to cover natural graying can cost people a lot of time and money, one of the hopes resulting from this discovery is that a more permanent method of treatment or prevention can be developed. However, it may still be some time before that result can be obtained.
“I think this study is a start. Identifying genes has not led to many preventive treatments in medicine, but this work may lead to better understanding of mechanisms of disease or of hair processes. As these mechanisms are further defined, it will allow for drugs or substances with the compatible mechanisms to be identified,” commented Nicole Rogers, MD, FAAD, a hair-transplant surgeon practicing at Old Metairie Dermatology in Metairie, La. “At this time, how these genes are modified or interact with one another is extremely complex and not close to being worked out yet.”