Legend has it that French queen Marie Antoinette’s hair turned white overnight just before her beheading during the French Revolution in 1793. Thus, ‘Marie Antoinette syndrome’ is the name given when there is an acute episode of greying.
A new study from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons is the first to offer evidence linking psychological stress to greying hair in people. While it may seem obvious that stress can accelerate greying, the researchers were surprised to discover that hair colour can be restored when stress is eliminated. The study has broader significance than confirming age-old speculation about the effects of stress on hair colour, says the study’s senior author, Associate Professor Martin Picard.
“Understanding the mechanisms that allow ‘old’ grey hairs to return to their ‘young’ pigmented states could yield new clues about the malleability of human ageing in general and how it is influenced by stress,” Picard says. “Our data add to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that human ageing is not a linear, fixed biological process but may, at least in part, be halted or even temporarily reversed.”
Picard’s laboratory developed a new method for capturing highly detailed images of tiny slices of human hairs to quantify the extent of pigment loss (greying) in each of those slices. The investigators immediately noticed that some grey hairs naturally regain their original colour, which had never been quantitatively documented, Picard says. When hairs were aligned with stress diaries associations between stress and hair greying were revealed and, in some cases, a reversal of greying with the lifting of stress.