Cure for grey hair? Scientific discovery could hold key to preserving hair color

FILE-A stylist cuts a man's hair at a salon. (Photo by: Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Grey hair is a physical change most experience as they get older, but new scientific research may shed light on how people can protect their natural hair color. 

A study by researchers from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine finds that some stem cells can transition between growth areas in hair follicles but get stuck as people get older and lose their ability to mature and sustain hair color, according to a release from NYU Langone Health.

The team’s study, published in the scientific journal Nature on Wednesday, centered on cells found in the skin of mice and humans called melanocyte stem cells or McSCs. 

Hair color, the researchers explain, is controlled based on nonfunctional but continually growing pools of McSCs in hair follicles to become mature cells that make protein pigments responsible for hair color.

The study notes McSCs are plastic, which means during hair growth, the cells move back and forth as they transition between parts of the developing hair follicle. Researchers share that these areas are where McSCs are exposed to different levels of protein signals. 

The team learned that as hair ages, sheds, and grows back, growing numbers of McSCs get stuck in the stem cell part called the hair follicle bulge, the study notes. 

"Our study adds to our basic understanding of how melanocyte stem cells work to color hair," study lead investigator Qi Sun, Ph.D., study lead investigator and a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Langone Health, said in a statement. 

Study senior investigator Mayumi Ito, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Dermatology and Cell Biology at NYU Langone Health, explains that the loss of "chameleon-like function" in melanocyte stem cells is likely the cause of greying and hair loss.

Researchers plan to investigate methods of restoring movement to these stem cells to produce color and prevent hair from turning grey. 

This story was reported from Washington, D.C.