Treating grey hair with pills may sound like a dream come true, but according to a recent study from NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, a team of researchers have discovered the molecular signals that control skin and hair color — a finding that could turn this abstract idea into a very real possibility.

For the paper, published in the online journal Cell Reports, researchers led by the medical center’s Mayumi Ito manipulated the stem cells in mice to better understand the molecular mechanisms behind skin and hair growth. The team noted that when mice were bred to be deficient in one specific signalling pathway, endothelin receptor type B, they experienced premature greying in their fur. When the team overstimulated this pathway, the mice showed hyperpigmentation and grew unusually dark skin. In yet another experiment, the team found that blocking another molecular signal, called Wnt, stalled stem cell growth and resulted in mice with unpigmented, grayish coats.

Based on these results, the team noted noted both the endothelin receptor type B and Wnt signalling pathways helped to control the production of melanocytes, the type of cells responsible for giving pigment to skin and hair. Although the former has previously been shown to help control blood vessel development, and the Wnt protein connected to melanocyte production, this is the first time scientists have seen how the interaction of these two pathways influenced coloring.

Although more research is needed, the team believe their findings could one day lead to drugs that control these signals and could treat premature graying.

According to Life Noggin, defective maintenance of the melanocytes responsible for our hair color leads to graying. While this maintenance often becomes defective simply because of old age, other factors such as genetics, stress, hormones, climate, and toxin exposure can also affect the health of melanocyte stem cells. For example, the gene IRF4 helps to regulate production and storage of melanin. What’s more, although most of us go grey, ethnicity plays a role in when. White people tend to lose their hair color faster than those in other ethnic groups.

In addition to offering a medical solution to grey hair, the finding could also be used to address certain skin pigment disorders like vitiligo, which causes the blotchy loss of skin color. The condition is caused when the cells that produce melanin either die out or stop functioning. While the condition is neither painful nor physically unhealthy, it can cause distress and loss of self-esteem. Although a recent arthritis medication showed surprising results in reversing the effects of vitiligo, for now the condition remains incurable.

Source: Ito M, Takeo M, Lee W, et al. EdnrB Governs Regenerative Response of Melanocyte Stem Cells by Crosstalk with Wnt Signaling. Cell Reports . 2016