Secrets of Redheads

Secrets of Redheads

By Megan Mansell Williams|Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What do redheads have that the rest of us don’t? Plenty, say scientists. Two recent studies:

Skin Cancer. Red hair often means light eyes, pale skin, and freckles—plus sunburns and a high incidence of skin cancer. Chemistry professor John Simon and his colleagues at Duke University believe that melanin, the pigment responsible for darkening skin in the baking sun, is more likely to kick-start DNA damage—and therefore cancer—in redheads than it is in black-haired people. The researchers compared the reaction of melanin in red hair and black hair to various wavelengths of ultraviolet light. They found that pigment isolated from red hair requires less energy to undergo the chemical reaction that produces the unstable, DNA-damaging free radicals linked to cancer. The melanin in black hair needs more energy to produce free radicals, reducing their damaging effects under normal atmospheric conditions.

Pain. Natural redheads have a higher pain threshold than others, says geneticist Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University’s pain laboratory. Men and women with naturally red hair can withstand 25 percent more electric shock than non-redheads. And painkillers used in childbirth work three times better on red-haired women than on others. Mogil and his team found that the mutant gene that causes red hair, melanocortin-1 (MC1R), also affects how redheads (including mice) react to pain. Now geneticist Ian Jackson of the United Kingdom Medical Research Council plans to study redheads in the hope of developing new painkillers. Connecting the gene to pain was surprising and exciting, Jackson says. “We thought that MC1R was involved only in hair color.”      

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