Many people around the globe face the disheartening rite of passage when they reach middle adulthood - the emergence of their first gray hair. For some people, the gray hairs come out earlier and most blame stress or environmental factors.

A new study, however, points to genetic factors as the primary culprit why some people get gray hair earlier than others.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) identified the first gene responsible for the graying of hair. This confirms that graying of hair is linked with genetics than other factors as previously thought.

"We already know several genes involved in balding and hair color but this is the first time a gene for graying has been identified in humans, as well as other genes influencing hair shape and density," said Kaustubh Adhikari from UCL.

"It was only possible because we analyzed a diverse melting pot of people, which hasn't been done before on this scale. These findings have potential forensic and cosmetic applications as we increase our knowledge on how genes influence the way we look," he added.

In the study published online in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers analyzed DNA data from more than 6,000 people from various ancestries across Latin America, including those in Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Peru. Included are people with other ancestries like Native Americans, Africans and Europeans.

Gene IRF4 Regulates Production Of Melanin

The researchers wanted to determine new genes responsible for the color, graying, shape and density of hair.

They found that a gene called IRF4, which is widely known to be linked with hair color, is also responsible for graying of hair. It regulates the production and storage of melanin, the dark pigment produced by melanocytes to give color to the hair, eyes and skin.

For the first time, this gene has shown direct involvement in the tendency of hair to become gray in both men and women. Hair turns gray as one becomes older since the cells stop producing melanin. The gene, IRF4, does not cause gray hair but its presence is linked with an earlier loss of hair color.

There could be other genes linked with graying of hair but this study at least has found one culprit for scientists to focus on when looking for possible ways to put off the graying of hair.

What The Findings Could Mean

The findings of the study could pave the way for improved treatments for hair graying without using hair dyes. This could also provide better forensic DNA technologies for investigators to use. They could build visual profiles based on the genetic makeup of the person.

The study could also provide a better understanding of human aging and impart valuable information needed in developing methods to delay the graying of hair.

Photo: Tiberiu Ana | Flickr 

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