Legend has it that Marie Antoinette’s hair turned gray overnight just before her beheading in 1791.
Though the legend is inaccurate–hair that has already grown out of the follicle does not change color–a new study from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons is the first to offer quantitative evidence linking psychological stress to graying hair in people.
And while it may seem intuitive that stress can accelerate graying, the researchers were surprised to discover that hair color can be restored when stress is eliminated, a finding that contrasts with a recent study in mice that suggested that stressed-induced gray hairs are permanent.
The study, published June 22 in eLife, has broader significance than confirming age-old speculation about the effects of stress on hair color, says the study’s senior author Martin Picard, PhD(link is external and opens in a new window), associate professor of behavioral medicine (in psychiatry and neurology) at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“Understanding the mechanisms that allow ‘old’ gray hairs to return to their ‘young’ pigmented states could yield new clues about the malleability of human aging in general and how it is influenced by stress,” Picard says.