What Causes Grey Hair: The Genetics Theory of Greying


Greying due to genetics is not the same as greying as we get old. Genetic greying occurs because the undifferentiated melanocyte stem cells that divides and produces mature melanin producing cells are either dieing off early or are dormant and can no longer sub-divide.


If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know by now that figuring out what causes grey hair is complicated. Over the past number of articles we have discussed 3 of the 4 main explanations as to why we grey. This article discusses the final explanation which is our genes (programmed cell death).

It’s only recently that the scientific community have been providing us with convincing evidence that points to the reasons behind our grey hair, which involved the death of melanocytes, the cells that are responsible for hair pigmentation. As we get older, our melanocytes – which are derived from stem cells – begin to die off thanks to constant exposure to free radical damage, B12 and folic acid deficiencies, hydrogen peroxide damage and of course genetics .

In a recent study at NYU Langone Medical Center, researchers uncovered a crucial relationship between Wnt signaling – a network of proteins that are responsible for controlling many of the body’s processes – and hair pigmentation. According to Mayumi Ito, PhD – assistant professor at NYU Langone – the research “discovered [that] Wnt signaling is essential for co-ordinated actions of these two stem cell lineages [epithelial and melanocytes stem cells] and critical for hair pigmentation.”

In other words, an inappropriate Wnt signaling can trigger the greying process – and that could hold the key to understanding the role of genetics in producing grey hair.

The researchers used mice to experiment with the inhibition of Wnt signaling pathways. When the Wnt pathways in the mice were prevented from signaling the production of melanocytes within the hair follicles, researchers noticed that hair growth slowed or stopped altogether; additionally, melanocytes halted the production of hair pigmentation, which effectively caused the mice to develop grey hair follicles.

This not only means that the genetic codes contained within your cells can halt the Wnt pathways from signaling to melanocytes: which is an inevitable part of the aging process, scientists are contemplating the role of stem cell research learning how to prevent greying altogether.

According to the researchers, Wnt signalling is critical for hair pigmentation. However forced activation leading to premature differentiation – which occurs during aging – leads to the exhaustion of the melanocyte stem cells, preventing them from replenishing themselves thereby leading to premature greying.

Dr. Ito further summed up the study’s findings: “The human body has many types of stem cells that have the potential to regenerate other organs. The methods behind communication between stems cells of hair and color during hair replacement may give us important clues to regenerate complex organs containing many different types of cells.”

Other Research has also suggested that genetics play a role in the amount of melanocytes that are present in our hair follicles. In a study conducted by Harvard Medical School and the Hokkaido University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan, it was discovered that as mice got older, they had fewer melanocytes as a result of the aging process. As we have similar hair follicles to mice, this research implies that our genetics could play a role in our greying processes, both with regards to the number of melanocytes produced, and the strength of Wnt signaling pathways.

While we may be many years away from utilizing stem cells to invigorate weakening Wnt pathways – an inevitable part of the aging process – this exciting research does suggest that one day we can manipulate our genetic code to abolish one of the most obvious signs of aging – grey hair.

Be sure to read all the related articles appearing AFTER the “comment block” below to get the best understanding on why we grey.


  1. Coordinated Activation of Wnt in Epithelial and Melanocyte Stem Cells Initiates Pigmented Hair Regeneration
    Piul Rabbani, Makoto Takeo, WeiChin Chou, Peggy Myung, Marcus Bosenberg, Lynda Chin, M. Mark Taketo and Mayumi Ito. Cell, Volume 145, Issue 6, 941-955, 10 June 2011
  2. New York University Langone Medical Center. New Research Provides Clues on Why Hair Turns Grey. Newswire. 14th of June, 2011. www.newswise.com/articles/new-research-provides-clues-on-why-hair-turns-gray.
  3. Pauli, Flo. Signs of Aging: New Clues to Why Our Hair Goes Gray. Department of Genetics, Stanford University. 20th of June, 2011. www.thetech.org/genetics/news.php?id=15

IMPORTANT: There are millions of folks just like you suffering with premature greying who are looking for information to assist them to figure it all out. You were fortunate enough to find our website and our information. If this information was useful to you, please help others to find it also by sharing this page. You can do so simply by clicking on one of the social share buttons at the end of this post thereby liking or +1 this page.


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About Frederica Hegney

Frederica Hegney is Editor of the Grey Defence blog. Where she focuses on topic around greying and its causes.
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