In ghost stories, it’s traditional for people’s hair to ‘go white overnight’ after catching a glimpse of some spectre – but could viruses do the same thing?
A new mouse study suggests that viral infections could actually trigger people’s hair going grey early in life.
In mice, exposure to a virus results in a loss of melanocyte stem cells – which leads to an increased number of grey hairs.
Melissa Harris of the University of Alabama at Birmingham says that when a virus attacks the immune system, infected cells respond by producing interferons. Interferons signal to neighbouring cells, telling them to protect themselves.
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In excess they can also lead to the loss of melanocytes and melanocyte stem cells, stopping the production of hair pigmentation.
Harris says that this may explain why some people get grey hair early in life.
Harris says, ‘Perhaps, in an individual who is healthy yet predisposed for gray hair, getting an everyday viral infection is just enough to cause the decline of their melanocytes and melanocyte stem cells leading to premature gray hair.’