Medical and technical advances for colorblindness

Roses are red? Grass is green? Right? For those suffering from poor color vision (color blindness) this may not be the case, however, with new advances in medicine and technology they may soon be able to see red roses and green grass.

What is Color blindness?
Color blindness is an inherited genetic abnormality that interferes with affected individual to detect color differences. Poor color vision can be mild, moderate, or severe. More males then females inherit the gene abnormality and display symptoms, however, females may be carriers of the trait.

Color is seen when chemical receptors called cones located on the retina at the back of the eye interpret color wavelengths and send their interpretation down the optic nerve to the brain. Those with poor color vision may be missing a certain cone, or have a malfunctioning cone. The wavelengths come in three colors: red (long wavelength), blue (short wavelength), and green (middle wavelength).

A color blind person may not see certain colors at all, may see different shades of the color, or even see an entirely different color. An individual with normal color vision will be able to see a multitude of colors and shades from variations of the three cones.

Poor color vision comes in three forms.

  1. Red/green color blindness (anomalous trichromacy) is the most common affecting 1 in 12 males and 1 in 250 females. These individuals have difficulty with the colors red and green.
  2. Blue color blindness (tritanomaly) is rare and affects both male and females equally. These individuals have difficulty distinguishing blue and yellow. These colors are often seen as white or grey to the affected individual.
  3. Complete color blindness (achromatopsia) is extremely rare. It is the loss of all color vision. These individuals see the world in shades of grey and are often sensitive to light.

What causes color blindness?
The number one cause of color blindness is genetic. Most individuals with color blindness have it from birth. The condition may not be diagnosed until later in life, but its presence is from birth. The abnormal gene is found on the X chromosome.

Color blindness can be acquired in some cases from aging, chronic illness, environmental factors, some medications and accidents or injury to the retina or certain locations of the brain via stroke.

How is color blindness diagnosed?
Assessing the individual’s ability to distinguish colors and shades of colors is how a diagnosis of color blindness is completed. Often color blindness is self-diagnosed resulting from a confusion or difficulty related to color.

The American Optical/Hardy, Rand and Rutter pseudo isochromatic test is the most commonly used. This test is the circle of colored discs on a card widely seen where the individual is asked to find the number inside. Those with normal color vision will easily see the number and those with poor color vision will not see a number.

The Ishihara test is similar to the American Optical Test where different colored discs are presented in a pattern to the individual. This test is able to tell which type of color blindness an individual is expressing. Those with normal color vision will see a number, those with red/green color blindness will see two different numbers, and those with blue color blindness will see yet a third number.

The Titmus II vision test or Color perception test is done in the office setting with a stereoscope machine. This test is not highly accurate and can only detect red/green color blindness.

How is colorblindness treated?
Colorblindness is a life long condition. The best treatment for color blindness is to learn how to live with it by finding other clues to indicate color. Colored contact lenses may be used to assist is color differentiation, but sometimes they just blur vision. Because it is easier to detect color differences with the absence of glare or brightness a colorblind individual may wear glasses to decrease glare and brightness.

Recently there has been research into gene therapy to cure colorblindness. Research using squirrel monkeys, colorblind at birth, have been successful in curing their colorblindness. The scientist at the University of Washington piggybacked a human form of red opsin gene to a virus and injected it behind the squirrel monkey’s retina thus reprogramming the color receptors. The monkey’s color vision improved over the next five months and has maintained stable for two years without side affects.

Gene therapy is still in the research stage, but scientist are hopeful they have found a cure to colorblindness in humans and this may lead to treatments in all blindness.

How has technology helped with colorblindness?
In an age of computers and mobile devices developers are addressing the colorblind individuals ability to interact with their products and the world.

Three computer science students at Hebrew University of Jerusalem developed an app, called Colorful, to assist colorblind individuals with detection of colors. Daniel Fluck writes on Colblinder.com that,

“Colorful boasts three major features that practically turn it into a one-stop shop:
1. Recognize colors with 4 different naming levels, ranging from your basic colors (i.e. Red, Green, Blue, Yellow etc.) and up to a full dictionary of 16.5 Billion color values (Hexadecimal notation).
2. Tag your favorite or most important colors with a name of your choosing! This comes in very handy when you are out shopping for clothes and want to find a shirt in that special color you look so good in. All you have to do is when you see a color you want to remember, tag it with a meaningful name and then next time you see it Colorful will let you know!
3. Daltonize the colors on the screen according to your own type of color blindness (Protanopia, Deuteranopia, Tritanopia). You can use this filter on the live camera feed or with a photo. Never again pick up a bad batch of bananas!”

Colorful, already available on Windows phone market place, can be used on any windows phone 7. The developers plan to incorporate other mobile platforms in the future.

John Stafford writes on his blog Scope about another app from iOS for color vision deficiency using augmented reality. The app called DanKam is available in app stores now. Stafford writes,

“Named after its author, Dan Kaminsky, it helps by automatically converting colors in the image which normally can’t be differentiated by people who are colorblind to colors which can be differentiated. It is optimized for the most common form of color blindness, anomalous trichromancy, in which differentiation between reds and greens is affected, but it also allows the user to tweak the filters.”

The Tech Game reports Sledgehammer Games is considering color blindness when making games. The author writes,

“Sledgehammer VP and COO Michael Condrey addressed the following: Research suggests that as much as 6% of the general population suffers from Color Blindness, or more accurately Color Vision Deficiency. Men (9-12%) are 20x more likely to be afflicted than women (0.25-1%). Those numbers vary depending on which source you quote, but we estimate that nearly a million gamers are playing Call of Duty every day with this issue. I am happy to report that we are working on a Color Blind Assist option for Modern Warfare 3.”

References:

Fallon, L.. “Color Blindness.” Gale Encyclopedia of Children’s Health: Infancy through Adolescence. 2006. Encyclopedia.com. 11 Mar. 2012 . <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Fluck, Daniel. “Colorful – A Color Detection App” Colblindor. 2011. Colblindor.com 11 Mar 2012.  <http://www.colblindor.com/2011/09/27/colorful-a-color-detection-app/>

Stafford, John. “Augmented reality iOS app for color vision deficiency.” Scope. 2011. Scopeblog.stanford.edu 11 Mar 2012. <http://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2011/01/augmented_reali/>.

Steakley, Lia “Gene therapy may cure color blindness.” Scope. 2009. Scopeblog.stanford.edu 11 Mar 2012. <http://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2009/09/gene_therapy_ma_1/>.

Stevens MD, William. “Achromatopsia Color Blindness.” Medicine Online. 2001. MedicineOnline.com 11 Mar 2012 .  <http://www.medicineonline.com/articles/A/2/Achromatopsia/Color-Blindness.html>.

The Mayo Clinic  <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/poor-color-vision/DS00233>

The Tech Game  <http://www.thetechgame.com/News/article/sid=1903.html>

Web MD  <http://www.webmd.com/eye-health/tc/color-blindness-topic-overview?page=1>

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