When in 1793 Marie Antoinette fell into the hands of the insurgents during the French Revolution and heard that she would be guillotined, her hair is said to have turned almost white overnight.
For many years, such stories have been circulating that link the sudden graying of hair – also known as “Marie Antoinette Syndrome” – with some very unpleasant or traumatic personal experiences. Now, for the first time, scientists at Harvard University in the United States and Sao Paulo University in Brazil have not only confirmed the phenomenon, but also found the biological mechanism that explains it.
The researchers, led by biology professor Ya-Chih Hsu, who conducted experiments on (stressed) mice and published in the journal Nature, found that intense stress can activate nerves, which in turn cause permanent damage to the stem cells of the hair follicles (there are about 100,000 in the human head), resulting in discoloration and graying of the hair. The prevailing theories so far have been that the rapid graying of hair is due either to an immune system reaction or to hormonal disorders.
The researchers focused on the sympathetic nervous system that controls the body’s “fight or flight” response to the dangers and nerves that reach every hair follicle in the skin. Stress causes the release of a neurotransmitter chemical, norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline), which is absorbed by neighboring stem cells that act as a “reservoir” for the cells (melanocytes) that produce the pigment trio. As hair regenerates and grows, certain stem cells become specialized cells that give hair its color.
However, the norepinephrine produced due to stress causes the stem cells to over-activate, with the result that many of them quickly turn into pigment-producing cells and eventually the “reservoir” empties prematurely. The result is premature graying, which can happen very quickly.
“By understanding exactly how stress affects the stem cells that regenerate the pigment, we laid the groundwork for understanding how stress affects other tissues and organs in the body. Understanding this stress-induced tissue change is the first critical step in a treatment that will stop or reverse the harmful effects of stress. However, we still have a lot to learn in this field “, he added.
Hair gradually begins to turn gray-
At first imperceptibly – between the ages of 30-40, a process that accelerates after the age of 50. In addition to stress and normal aging, other factors that gray hair in some people more and faster than what in others, are genetic, malnutrition and certain diseases.
Evolutionary biologists and psychologists, however, argue that there is a potential evolutionary advantage to those who see their head suddenly turn white: because gray hair is traditionally associated with the elderly, such a head conveys the message of experience, leadership, and confidence. Maybe they gild the pill…