Hair is a history book

The pigment in a hair is like the rings of a tree, tracing the life history of the person it came from.

A greying head of hair. Image credit: Philippe Alès (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hair greying is a visible sign of aging that affects everyone. The loss of hair color is due to the loss of melanin, a pigment found in the skin, eyes and hair. Research in mice suggests stress may accelerate hair greying, but there is no definitive research on this in humans. This is because there are no research tools to precisely map stress and hair color over time. But, just like tree rings hold information about past decades, and rocks hold information about past centuries, hairs hold information about past months and years.

Hair growth is an active process that happens under the skin inside hair follicles. It demands lots of energy, supplied by structures inside cells called mitochondria. While hairs are growing, cells receive chemical and electrical signals from inside the body, including stress hormones. It is possible that these exposures change proteins and other molecules laid down in the growing hair shaft. As the hair grows out of the scalp, it hardens, preserving these molecules into a stable form. This preservation is visible as patterns of pigmentation. Examining single-hairs and matching the patterns to life events could allow researchers to look back in time through a person’s biological history.

Rosenberg et al. report a new way to digitize and measure small changes in color along single human hairs. This method revealed that some white hairs naturally regain their color, something that had not been reported in a cohort of healthy individuals before. Aligning the hair pigmentation patterns with recent reports of stress in the hair donors’ lives showed striking associations. When one donor reported an increase in stress, a hair lost its pigment. When the donor reported a reduction in stress, the same hair regained its pigment. Rosenberg et al. mapped hundreds of proteins inside the hairs to show that white hairs contained more proteins linked to mitochondria and energy use. This suggests that metabolism and mitochondria may play a role in hair greying. To explore these observations in more detail Rosenberg et al. developed a mathematical model that simulates the greying of a whole head of hair over a lifetime, an experiment impossible to do with living people. The model suggested that there might be a threshold for temporary greying; if hairs are about to go grey anyway, a stressful event might trigger that change earlier. And when the stressful event ends, if a hair is just above the threshold, then it could revert back to dark.

The new method for measuring small changes in hair coloring opens up the possibility of using hair pigmentation patterns like tree rings. This could track the influence of past life events on human biology. In the future, monitoring hair pigmentation patterns could provide a way to trace the effectiveness of treatments aimed at reducing stress or slowing the aging process. Understanding how ‘old’ white hairs regain their ‘young’ pigmented state could also reveal new information about the malleability of human aging more generally.