Grey or white hair develops with advancing age in an entirely natural ageing process which results in the generation of less and less colour pigments. Researchers of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany and the University of Bradford in Great Britain have now unlocked the secret of hair turning white or grey in old age. According to them, free oxygen radicals are significantly involved in the loss of hair colour. 'The originator of the entire process is hydrogen peroxide, which we also know as a bleaching agent,' explains Professor Heinz Decker of the Institute of Biophysics at Mainz University. 'With advancing age, hydrogen peroxide builds up in larger amounts in the hair follicle and ultimately inhibits the synthesis of the colour pigment melanin.' The biophysicists in Mainz together with dermatologists from Bradford have revealed the molecular mechanisms of this process for the first time, and they published their findings in the professional journal The FASEB Journal.
Hydrogen peroxide - or H2O2 by its the chemical formula - is a by-product of metabolism, and as such it is generated in small amounts throughout the human body, consequently also in hair follicles. With increasing age, the quantity builds up, because the human body can no longer keep up neutralising the hydrogen peroxide using the enzyme catalyse, which breaks down hydrogen peroxide into its two components water and oxygen. In their work, the scientists showed that in ageing cells this enzyme is still present but in very limited concentration. This has dramatic consequences. Hydrogen peroxide attacks the enzyme tyrosinase by oxidising an amino acid, methionine, at the active site. As a consequence, this key enzyme, which normally starts the synthesising pathway of the colouring pigment melanin, does not function anymore. 'We now know the specific molecular dynamic that underlies this process,' elucidates Decker. The scientists at the Institute of Biophysics at Mainz University have been working for about ten years already on research concerning tyrosinases, which are enzymes present in all organisms and performing a variety of functions. In computer simulations that helped to reveal the molecular mechanisms, the biophysicists were supported by the newly established research focus on 'Computer-based Research Methods in the Natural Sciences' at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.
Oxidation by hydrogen peroxide not only interferes with the production of melanin, but also inhibits other enzymes that are needed for the repair of damaged proteins. As a result, a cascade of events is set off, at the end of which stands the gradual loss of pigments in the entire hair from its root to its tip. With this research work, the scientists from Mainz and Bradford not only solved - on a molecular level - the age-old riddle of why hair turns grey in old age, but also have pointed out approaches for future therapy of vitiligo, a skin pigment disorder. For melanin is not only the pigment in hair, but it is also responsible for colour in skin and eyes.
The researchers in Mainz were supported by the Collaborative Research Centre 490 'Mechanisms of Invasion and Persistence of Infectious Agents,' and the Research Training Group 1043 'Antigen-specific Immunotherapy,' both funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).