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[GETTING TO THE ROOT] Stress can turn hair gray -- and it's reversible

Legend has it that Marie Antoinette's hair turned gray overnight just before her beheading in 1791.

Though the legend is inaccurate - hair that has already grown out of the follicle does not change color - a study from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons is the first to offer quantitative evidence linking psychological stress to graying hair in people.

While it may seem intuitive that stress can accelerate graying, the researchers were surprised to discover that hair color can be restored when stress is eliminated, a finding that contrasts with a recent study in mice that suggested that stressed-induced gray hairs are permanent.

The study has broader significance than confirming age-old speculation about the effects of stress on hair color, says the study's senior author Martin Picard, PhD, associate professor of behavioral medicine.

"Understanding the mechanisms that allow 'old' gray hairs to return to their 'young' pigmented states could yield new clues about the malleability of human aging in general and how it is influenced by stress," Picard says. “Our data add to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that human aging is not a linear, fixed biological process but may, at least in part, be halted or even temporarily reversed."

The researchers developed a new method for capturing highly detailed images of tiny slices of human hairs and analyzed individual hairs from 14 volunteers. The results were compared with each volunteer's stress diary, in which participants were asked to rate each week's level of stress.

When hairs were aligned with stress diaries, striking associations between stress and hair graying were revealed and, in some cases, a reversal of graying with the lifting of stress.

"There was one individual who went on vacation, and five hairs on that person's head reverted back to dark during the vacation, synchronized in time," Picard says.

Further analyses revealed that changes in 300 proteins occurred when hair color changed, and the researchers developed a mathematical model that suggests stress-induced changes in mitochondria may explain how stress turns hair gray.

"In middle age, when the hair is near that threshold because of biological age and other factors, stress will push it over the threshold and it transitions to gray," Picard noted. “But we don't think that reducing stress in a 70-year-old who's been gray for years will darken their hair or increasing stress in a 10-year-old will be enough to tip their hair over the gray threshold."

To read the abstract, click here

To view a YouTube video explaining the findings, click here

 

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