Scientists prove stress causes grey hair

Harvard study finds that anxiety and fear wipe out pigmentation cells

Former US president Barack Obama saw his hair turn white while in office
(Image credit: (Scott Olson/Getty Images))

Stress can make your hair turn white prematurely, according to new research that vindicates a theory long dismissed as an old wives’ tale.

The sudden loss of hair pigmentation following an emotional trauma has been dubbed Marie Antoinette Syndrome, after the 18th century French queen whose auburn hair is said to have turned white overnight before she was sent to the guillotine.

Now, researchers at Harvard have revealed the science behind the condition, in a paper published in the journal Nature.

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In experiments on mice, the team found that extreme stress causes nerves involved in the fight-or-flight response to pump out a hormone that wipes out the stem cells which produce melanin in hair follicles.

And without the melanin adding colour, the hair turns white or grey.

“The detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined,” said senior study author Ya-Chieh Hsu, an associate professor of stem cell and regenerative biology. “After just a few days, all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost.

“Once they’re gone, you can’t regenerate pigment anymore. The damage is permanent.”

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The Times says the findings “could explain why some world leaders, such as Barack Obama, appear to go grey at an accelerated pace as they shoulder the burdens of office”.

Dr Christopher Deppmann of the University of Virginia told the newspaper: “There’s lots of anecdotes about people being in car crashes and rapidly going grey, or the hair of heads of state turning white while in office. This study tells us exactly how that’s happening.”

The research findings could also prove useful to scientists seeking new ways to help delay the effects of old age.

“Because stress can be considered a form of accelerated ageing, the discovery has raised hopes for treatments that can slow down or even halt normal age-related greying,” says The Guardian.

“More importantly, it could shed light on how ageing depletes stem cells throughout the body, and perhaps point the way to general anti-ageing therapies.”

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