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Gray Hair Can Return to Its Original Color–and Stress Is Involved, of Course

Few harbingers of old age are clearer than the sight of gray hair. As we grow older, black, brown, blonde or red strands lose their youthful hue. Although this may seem like a permanent change, new research reveals that the graying process can be undone—at least temporarily. Hints that gray hairs could spontaneously regain color…

most unusual feature.” Although the vast majority of the individual’s hairs were either all black or all white, three strands were light near the ends but dark near the roots. This signaled a reversal in the normal graying process, which begins at the root.

In a study published today in eLife, a group of researchers provide the most robust evidence of this phenomenon to date in hair from around a dozen people of various ages, ethnicities and sexes. It also aligns patterns of graying and reversal to periods of stress, which implies that this aging-related process is closely associated with our psychological well-being.

These findings suggest “that there is a window of opportunity during which graying is probably much more reversible than had been thought for a long time,” says study co-author Ralf Paus, a dermatologist at the University of Miami.

Around four years ago Martin Picard, a mitochondrial psychobiologist at Columbia University, was pondering the way our cells grow old in a multistep manner in which some of them begin to show signs of aging at much earlier time points than others. This patchwork process, he realized, was clearly visible on our head, where our hairs do not all turn gray at the same time. “It seemed like the hair, in a way, recapitulated what we know happens at the cellular level,” Picard says. “Maybe there’s something to learn there. Maybe the hairs that turn white first are the more vulnerable or least resilient.”

While discussing these ideas with his partner, Picard mentioned something in passing: if one could find a hair that was only partially gray—and then calculate how fast that hair was growing—it might be possible to pinpoint the period in which the hair began aging and thus ask the question of what happened in the individual’s life to trigger this change. “I was thinking about this almost as a fictive idea,” Picard recalls. Unexpectedly, however, his partner turned to him and said she had seen such two-colored hairs on her head. “She went to the bathroom and actually plucked a couple—that’s when this project started,” he says.

Picard and his team began searching for others with two-colored hairs through local ads, on social media and by word of mouth. Eventually, they were able to find 14 people—men and women ranging from nine to 65 years old with various ethnic backgrounds (although the majority were white). Those individuals provided both single- and two-colored hair strands from different parts of the body, including the scalp, face and pubic area.

The researchers then developed a technique to digitize and quantify the subtle changes in color, which they dubbed hair pigmentation patterns, along each strand. These patterns revealed something surprising: In 10 of these participants, who were between age nine and 39, some graying hairs regained color. The team also found that this occurred not just on the head but in other bodily regions as well. “When we saw this in pubic hair, we thought, ‘Okay, this is real,’” Picard says. “This happens not just in one person or on the head but across the whole body.” He adds that because the reversibility only appeared in some hair follicles, however, it is likely limited to specific periods when changes are still able to occur.

Most people start noticing their first gray hairs in their 30s—although some may find them in their late 20s.This period, when graying has just begun, is probably when the process is most reversible, according to Paus. In those with a full head of gray hair, most of the strands have presumably reached a “point of no return,” but the possibility remains that some hair follicles may still be malleable to change, he says.

“What was most remarkable was the fact that they were able to show convincingly that, at the individual hair level, graying is actually reversible,“ says Matt Kaeberlein, a biogerontologist at the University of Washington, who was one of the editors of the new paper but was not involved in the work. “What we’re learning is that, not just in hair but in a variety of tissues, the biological change

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