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Changes in Hair Color

Hair becomes grey because specialized cells within the hair follicle called melanocytes stop making melanin, the pigment responsible for giving hair its color. The pigments eumelanin colors hair brown or black and pheomelanin results in yellow and red hair. As the hair follicles gradually stop making melanin and incorporating it into the hair shafts, the hair turns grey and then white.

Until recently, scientists had no idea why hair follicles stopped making melanin, causing grey hair. It has been proposed that the formation of melanin itself may contribute to loss in pigmentation because melanin synthesis causes the release of reactive oxygen species that harm the melanocytes.

In a Science magazine report, researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Children's Hospital Boston say they have found the basic cause of graying hair while investigating the origins of skin cancer1. These scientists discovered that there is a gradual depletion with age of the stem cells that are the precursors to melanocytes in the hair. These stem cells normally give rise to melanocytes during the hair's grow-andrest cycle and then migrate to the bottom of the hair follicle and add color to the keratinocytes in the hair shaft.

The scientists speculate that hair graying may be caused by the programmed cell death (apoptosis) of the melanocyte stem cells caused by the stress of changes (such as dormancy) in the hair life cycle. Some of the stem cells, instead of coming out of dormancy, just die instead. A method of preventing graying or restoring hair color must address this loss of stem cells to be a permanent or long-term solution. Treatments that help protect stem cells against apoptosis, such as the Bcl2 gene product, or molecules that help nourish and stimulate stem cells during their awakening from dormancy may help address the loss of hair pigment with age.


  1. Mechanisms of Hair Graying: Incomplete Melanocyte Stem Cell Maintenance in the Niche. 2005. Science 307: 720-724.


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