Grey hair is something we can all look forward to. That the genes have something to do with it is pretty clear. Some people go grey in their twenties – a few put it off until their fifties or even later. And it is very rare that someone goes grey and then turns back again. So it is a pretty safe bet that this is not strongly an environmental thing.
And in fact a detailed study in Latin America has now revealed the details of that genetic mechanism. The surprise is that at first sight it looks a lot simpler than might have been expected. There is a gene for hair greying. I wasn’t expecting that. I was rather assuming that it would turn out to be the result of some subtle and complicated interplay of several genes.
Things look a lot simpler now, with what looks like a single gene being responsible for grey hair. This means that if a way can be found to block the expression of this gene, then there could be a ‘cure’, and we can keep our natural hair colour much later in life. This is all very much at the initial stages right now. A product won’t be appearing on the shelf anytime in the next few years. And there is no indication, at least not in public, of just how the blocking could be done. It might not be possible to deliver it in the form of a pill – it might take a lot more intervention than that.
I am very aware of this because I once saw a demonstration of a cure for greyness based on a very sound bit of science. A dermatologist suggested that there might be a simple way to prevent greying. One misconception you still see is that grey hair is grey because the body has stopped producing melanin. This isn’t quite how it works. The melanin is still produced but it is produced in a less organised way so that it reflects light differently. The proposal was that this disorganisation resulted from overproduction of hydrogen peroxide. This is a mild bleaching agent that is produced in the body, so that was believable. She had taken it a stage further and come up with a system that soaked up the hydrogen peroxide.
It sounded like a plausible theory. She was confident enough to try it on her greying husband’s hair. Sadly, it just didn’t do what it was supposed to and he remained exactly as grey as when the trial started. Nature doesn’t give up easily and I suspect that even with a big clue from the genetics this is going to be a tough problem to solve.
But even allowing for that, I think this is a remarkable bit of research and quite a turn up for the books. It is amazing that we are even this close.