Hair Grays Too Soon If Immune Events Shift Gene Expression

Lynette PayneMay 07, 2018

"The stem cells we study are the melanocyte stem cells in the hair follicle, which are the stem cells that are essential for producing melanocytes". Publishing May 3 in the open access journal PLOS Biology, researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Alabama, Birmingham have discovered a connection between the genes that contribute to hair color and the genes that notify our bodies of a pathogenic infection. "We like to study gray hair because it's an easy read-out of melanocyte stem cell dysfunction." . The experts discovered a connection between the genes that trigger immune response and the regulation of hair and skin color.

William Payan at the National Institutes of Health and Melissa Harris at the University of Alabama, both in the United States, have now discovered that in addition to its role in melanin production MITF acts as an off-switch for certain genes involved in immune activity.

The team surmise that this might shed light on what causes premature graying of hair, and they continue to pursue this question.

"This discovery suggests that genes controlling pigmentation of hair and skin, are also involved in the management of the immune system", - quotes the portal Science Daily William's Pavane, one of the authors of the study.

The authors of the study stated that when a body is under attack from a virus the innate immune system kicks in to fight it. Cells in the body have the ability to detect any type of foreign invader and the respond by producing interferon, which are signaling molecules.

Scientists focused on a special type of stem cells in the hair called melanocytes.

Interferons signal other cells to take action by turning on the expression of genes that inhibit viral replication, activate immune effector cells, and increase host defenses. Neither situation stopped the gray hair from setting in. "We are interested in genes that affect how our stem cells are maintained over time".

As a result, the newly grown hair no longer has its natural color; instead, it gets gray or white. UAB researchers found that MITF proteins may block the production of a virus-killing protein called interferon. Vitiligo, which causes discolored skin patches, affects 0.5% to 1% of all humans.

The study found that, although MITF is most commonly associated with regulating the numerous functions within melanocytes, it also helps control the melanocytes' interferon response.

The researchers explained that innate immune activation has a negative effect on melanocytes, which underlies the connection between viral infection and hair graying.

However, a new a new study shows that getting gray hair may stem from something being wrong in a person's immune system.

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