Parkinson’s linked to ginger hair? Nuts surely?

I’m a red head, a ginger, a carrot top, a strawberry blonde, even commonly referred to in Australia as a 'Ranga' (a contraction of the orange furred primate Orangutan). Famous examples of the species include, King Henry VIII, his daughter Elizabeth I, Axl Rose lead singer of Guns 'n' Roses, the Undertaker from the WWF and most recently Ed Sheeran.

So what’s all this got to do with Parkinson’s, well……..

Being a ginger may be a significant risk factor for developing Parkinson’s.

Don’t worry Sheeran fans, much as I’d sooner be subjected to medieval torture than hear Galway Girl played any more on the radio, the risk to Ed facing the same plight as my good self is still tiny.

To use the local dialect of my home town of Bo’ness, where there’s a unique linguistic concept of concatenating a number of words into one for the purposes of a spoken question:

Doyihinksaeaye?

To translate to the Queens English, roughly this means…. Would you kindly explain yourself kind sir?

Certainly. You see it comes down to what is increasingly a common factor in much of the recent breakthroughs in Parkinson’s research…..genetics. In this case the gene in question is MC1R. So what’s the science behind all this? Well a couple of blogs from the ever readable Science of Parkinson’s blog are well worth reading, Red Hair, Sir, In my opinion is Dangerous and The Red Headed Mice of Boston and explain the science better than I ever could, which you’d rather hope they would given they are written by an actual real life scientist and I am but a mere Data Analyst (and not a very good one if recent technical examination results are anything to go by).

One of the main takeaways from research published so far is that as a red head you are 5 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s than someone with a more common hair colour, and the incidence increases amongst the young onset population. I’ve noticed myself from casual observation that amongst my young onset peers, there does appear to be a disproportionate number of red heads.

There is also a strong link of co-morbidity with melanoma (skin cancer). Before any of my fellow red heads go running for the hair dye, a futile exercise anyway, because the risk here is both genetic and well it’s likely that your freckles will still give you away, the risk is still very, very small.

The good news is that there is now work being undertaken to determine as to whether targeting MC1R would represent a therapeutic target for both conditions. Admittedly, I’m unsure as to what impact this may have on the colour of my hair.

My personal theory into how Parkinson’s may result from the presence of the MC1R gene? Well it is known that people carrying the gene have an increased sensitivity to pain. There’s quite a good write up on it on Wikipedia. It has been speculated that Parkinson’s may spread from cell to cell through a process of inflammation, what if the increased sensitivity of a MC1R carrier makes them more prone from exposure to an unspecified environmental factor that would initiate the disease process?

As a wider point, this is perhaps more evidence of the need for sub-typing and precision medicine in Parkinson’s. It may or may not be the case that red headed Parkinson's is a genetic sub type of the condition, but I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there’s a wide variety of condition’s currently ‘marketed’ under the Parkinson’s brand.

There will hopefully come a day in the near future, when we look back and laugh at how such a singular treatment pathway was pursued for so long for what would clearly seem to be a multi-faceted condition.


Martin is a Volunteer Research Blogger at Parkinson’s UK, he writes perspective pieces about Parkinson’s research. Read other blog posts by Martin

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