Gray Hair Gene Found: Scientists Zero In Genes That Cause Hair Color, Baldness, Unibrows, And Other Facial Unpleasantness

Scientists have found the gray hair gene, confirming what your mother has always told you but that you haven’t had the heart to admit to yourself: gray hair runs in the family.

As MSN reports, a University College London study published in the journal Nature Communications has identified a variety of different genes responsible for various hair features. Specifically, they’ve narrowed down not only what causes gray hair, but also curly hair, beard thickness, baldness, and even the dreaded Unibrow.

Gray Hair Gene Found
Blame the genes for that Unibrow. [Image courtesy of Artist via Wikimedia Commons by License]

As humans evolved, the genes that govern our hair evolved with us. Further, they evolved differently among different human groups. You can see the effects of that evolution today: you rarely see people with naturally straight hair in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. And variable hair color – that is, hair of different colors among people of the same ethnic group, or even the same family – is mostly a West Eurasian trait.

Lead researcher Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari says the fact that you see naturally-occurring straight hair in vastly different racial groups is also a sign of the genes’ evolution.

“Interestingly, different genes have been associated with straight hair in Europeans and East Asians, suggesting that this trait evolved independently at least twice.”

Dr. Adhikari and his team studied thousands of men and women from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru – a genetic soup of people all with mixed European, Native American, and even African ancestry in their DNA. After making note of the subjects’ appearances – is their hair straight, curly, thick, thin, gray – the researchers then carefully analyzed their DNA to match up which genes cause which features.

The gray hair gene, lovingly named IRF4, helps regulate the production and storage of melanin.

Melanin, you may recall from junior high biology class, is the pigment that helps determine skin, hair, and eye color. Since gray hair isn’t so much a color, as it is the absence of color caused by an absence of melanin, figuring out what makes the gray hair gene tick means that the cosmetics industry may some day be able to prevent, and even reverse, graying, according to Sacred Heart Spectrum.

“These findings have potential forensic and cosmetic applications as we increase our knowledge on how genes influence the way we look. Preventing grey hair is a possibility and even reversing grey hair might not be impossible. People spend a lot of money changing their hair color, but all of it goes on bleach or dyes.”

Going even further, the understanding of the hair genes may even allow you to choose your hair color, or even make it curly or straight, simply by taking a pill. Similarly, women (or men) with unwanted facial hair could find themselves rid of it without resorting to expensive and/or painful short-term remedies.

Vivian Diller, a research psychologist in private practice in New York City, tells CNN that getting a handle on gray hair may help aging people feel more in control of the process.

“I think (people) will feel less like they are out of control. If we know that it is in your genes you will get gray hair at a certain age, no matter what you do, you will say, ‘OK, I’ll just color it. I’m not going to pluck them out, and I know it doesn’t mean I’m old and dying,'”

Scientists hope that having found the gray hair gene will also lead to forensic and law-enforcement applications as well as someday maybe even reversing the aging process itself.

[Image via Shutterstock/Chutima Chaochaiya]