Medicine's Lighter Side

Gray hair goes away and squids go to space


Goodbye stress, goodbye gray hair

Last year was a doozy, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if we all had a few new gray strands in our hair. But what if we told you that you don’t need to start dying them or plucking them out? What if they could magically go back to the way they were? Well, it may be possible, sans magic and sans stress.

Investigators recently discovered that the age-old belief that stress will permanently turn your hair gray may not be true after all. There’s a strong possibility that it could turn back to its original color once the stressful agent is eliminated.

“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,” said senior author Martin Picard, PhD, of Columbia University, New York.

Gray hair NomeVisualizzato/Pixabay

For the study, 14 volunteers were asked to keep a stress diary and review their levels of stress throughout the week. The researchers used a new method of viewing and capturing the images of tiny parts of the hairs to see how much graying took place in each part of the strand. And what they found – some strands naturally turning back to the original color – had never been documented before.

How did it happen? Our good friend the mitochondria. We haven’t really heard that word since eighth-grade biology, but it’s actually the key link between stress hormones and hair pigmentation. Think of them as little radars picking up all different kinds of signals in your body, like mental/emotional stress. They get a big enough alert and they’re going to react, thus gray hair.

So that’s all it takes? Cut the stress and a full head of gray can go back to brown? Not exactly. The researchers said there may be a “threshold because of biological age and other factors.” They believe middle age is near that threshold and it could easily be pushed over due to stress and could potentially go back. But if you’ve been rocking the salt and pepper or silver fox for a number of years and are looking for change, you might want to just eliminate the stress and pick up a bottle of dye.

One small step for squid

Space does a number on the human body. Forget the obvious like going for a walk outside without a spacesuit, or even the well-known risks like the degradation of bone in microgravity; there are numerous smaller but still important changes to the body during spaceflight, like the disruption of the symbiotic relationship between gut bacteria and the human body. This causes the immune system to lose the ability to recognize threats, and illnesses spread more easily.

Naturally, if astronauts are going to undertake years-long journeys to Mars and beyond, a thorough understanding of this disturbance is necessary, and that’s why NASA has sent a bunch of squid to the International Space Station.

When it comes to animal studies, squid aren’t the usual culprits, but there’s a reason NASA chose calamari over the alternatives: The Hawaiian bobtail squid has a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that regulate their bioluminescence in much the same way that we have a symbiotic relationship with our gut bacteria, but the squid is a much simpler animal. If the bioluminescence-regulating bacteria are disturbed during their time in space, it will be much easier to figure out what’s going wrong.

Squid PxHere

The experiment is ongoing, but we should salute the brave squid who have taken a giant leap for squidkind. Though if NASA didn’t send them up in a giant bubble, we’re going to be very disappointed.

Less plastic, more vanilla

Have you been racked by guilt over the number of plastic water bottles you use? What about the amount of ice cream you eat? Well, this one’s for you.

Plastic isn’t the first thing you think about when you open up a pint of vanilla ice cream and catch the sweet, spicy vanilla scent, or when you smell those fresh vanilla scones coming out of the oven at the coffee shop, but a new study shows that the flavor of vanilla can come from water bottles.

Here’s the deal. A compound called vanillin is responsible for the scent of vanilla, and it can come naturally from the bean or it can be made synthetically. Believe it or not, 85% of vanillin is made synthetically from fossil fuels!

We’ve definitely grown accustomed to our favorite vanilla scents, foods, and cosmetics. In 2018, the global demand for vanillin was about 40,800 tons and is expected to grow to 65,000 tons by 2025, which far exceeds the supply of natural vanilla.

So what can we do? Well, we can use genetically engineered bacteria to turn plastic water bottles into vanillin, according to a study published in the journal Green Chemistry.

water bottles with blue caps lined next to each other tezzstock/Thinkstock

The plastic can be broken down into terephthalic acid, which is very similar, chemically speaking, to vanillin. Similar enough that a bit of bioengineering produced Escherichia coli that could convert the acid into the tasty treat, according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh.

A perfect solution? Decreasing plastic waste while producing a valued food product? The thought of consuming plastic isn’t appetizing, so just eat your ice cream and try to forget about it.

No withdrawals from this bank

Into each life, some milestones must fall: High school graduation, birth of a child, first house, 50th wedding anniversary, COVID-19. One LOTME staffer got really excited – way too excited, actually – when his Nissan Sentra reached 300,000 miles.

Well, there are milestones, and then there are milestones. “1,000 Reasons for Hope” is a report celebrating the first 1,000 brains donated to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank. For those of you keeping score at home, that would be the Department of Veterans Affairs, Boston University, and the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

The Brain Bank, created in 2008 to study concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is the brainchild – yes, we went there – of Chris Nowinski, PhD, a former professional wrestler, and Ann McKee, MD, an expert on neurogenerative disease. “Our discoveries have already inspired changes to sports that will prevent many future cases of CTE in the next generation of athletes,” Dr. Nowinski, the CEO of CLF, said in a written statement.

A computer graphic of a blue-colored brain. Jana Blaková/Thinkstock

Data from the first thousand brains show that 706 men, including 305 former NFL players, had football as their primary exposure to head impacts. Women were underrepresented, making up only 2.8% of brain donations, so recruiting females is a priority. Anyone interested in pledging can go to or call 617-992-0615 for the 24-hour emergency donation pager.

LOTME wanted to help, so we called the Brain Bank to find out about donating. They asked a few questions and we told them what we do for a living. “Oh, you’re with LOTME? Yeah, we’ve … um, seen that before. It’s, um … funny. Can we put you on hold?” We’re starting to get a little sick of the on-hold music by now.

Recommended Reading

A new take on breathing and a performance-enhancing placebo
MDedge Hematology and Oncology
Gene therapy is bad business, and hugging chickens is just … bad
MDedge Hematology and Oncology
Noses can be electronic, and toilets can be smart
MDedge Hematology and Oncology
The pandemic changed smokers, but farming didn’t change humans
MDedge Hematology and Oncology
The most important meal of the day, with extra zinc
MDedge Hematology and Oncology