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Colour blindness (colour vision deficiency, or CVD) affects approximately 1 in 12 men (8%) and 1 in 200 women in the world.
There are different causes of colour blindness. For the vast majority of people with deficient colour vision the condition is genetic and has been inherited from their mother, although some people become colour blind as a result of other diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis or they acquire the condition over time due to the aging process, medication etc.
Most colour blind people are able to see things as clearly as other people but they unable to fully ‘see’ red, green or blue light. There are different types of colour blindness and there are extremely rare cases where people are unable to see any colour at all.
Based on clinical appearance, color blindness may be described as total or partial. Total color blindness is much less common than partial color blindness. There are two major types of color blindness: those who have difficulty distinguishing between red and green, and who have difficulty distinguishing between blue and yellow.
- Total color blindness
- Partial color blindness
- Dichromacy (protanopia and deuteranopia)
- Anomalous trichromacy (protanomaly and deuteranomaly)
- Dichromacy (tritanopia)
- Anomalous trichromacy (tritanomaly)
- Blue-green trichromacy (tritanomaly)
The most common form of colour blindness is known as red/green colour blindness and most colour blind people suffer from this. Although known as red/green colour blindness this does not mean sufferers mix up red and green, it means they mix up all colours which have some red or green as part of the whole colour. For example, a red/green colour blind person will confuse a blue and a purple because they can’t ‘see’ the red element of the colour purple.
Similar problems can arise across the whole colour spectrum affecting all reds, greens, oranges, browns, purples, pinks and greys. Even black can be confused as dark green or dark blue.
Degrees of colour blindness
The effects of colour vision deficiency can be mild, moderate or severe so, for example, approximately 40% of colour blind pupils currently leaving secondary school are unaware that they are colour blind , whilst 60% of sufferers experience many problems in everyday life.
Statistically speaking most people with a moderate form of red/green colour blindness will only be able to identify accurately 5 or so coloured pencils from a standard box of 24 pencil crayons. Depending upon which type of the condition a colour blind person is suffering from they could see the set of pencil crayons similarly to the following images.
Total color blindness
Achromatopsia is strictly defined as the inability to see color. Although the term may refer to acquired disorders such as cerebral achromatopsia also known as color agnosia, it typically refers to congenital color vision disorders (i.e. more frequently rod monochromacy and less frequently cone monochromacy).
In cerebral achromatopsia, a person cannot perceive colors even though the eyes are capable of distinguishing them. Some sources do not consider these to be true color blindness, because the failure is of perception, not of vision. They are forms of visual agnosia.
Colour blindness can be difficult to detect, particularly in children with inherited colour vision deficiency as they may be unaware that they have any problems with their colour vision. A child with a severe condition such as deuteranopia may seemingly be able to accurately identify colours which they can’t see (e.g. red) because they have been taught the colour of objects from an early age and will know for example that grass is green and strawberries are red even if they have no concept of their true colours.
If you have any eye test with an optometrist (a registered health professional who examines eyes, tests sight and dispenses glasses and contact lenses) they should test your colour vision as a matter of routine, but not all chains of opticians test routinely and with some you may have to request a colour vision test specifically and sometimes even pay for it as an extra.
You can also see your GP if you have any problems seeing colours. Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask about your medical history.
There are many tests available to measure colour vision defects but the most common is the Ishihara Plate test. This can test for red/green colour blindness but not blue colour blindness. This is the test most likely to be used for routine colour vision screening in schools or medicals.
This test is the most widely used for testing for red-green colour vision deficiency and contains 38 plates of circles created by irregular coloured dots in two or more colours. The plates will be put in front of you and you will be asked what number you can see on the plate. Some plates contain information which people with normal colour vision can see whilst others contain information that only people with colour blindness can see. If you make a certain amount of errors you will be diagnosed with colour blindness. Special Plate tests have been devised to diagnose young children who are not old enough to identify numbers.
More sophisticated tests are also widely used to ascertain whether someone with a colour vision deficiency would be suitable for certain occupations. A Lantern test is one such test which is used to identify people not suitable to work as train drivers or in marine and aviation jobs or other occupations where the work requires the ability to accurately reading the colours of lights for safety reasons.
At www.colorvisiontesting.com you can find an initial test for colour blindness on the screen.
www.toledo-bend.com/colorblind/Ishihara.asp also shows some Ishihara plates tests for online testing.
Please note that these tests are for initial testing only and will not give an accurate formal diagnosis. If you suspect that you or your child might be colour blind please seek professional help from an optician.
Causes of Colour Blindness
Colour blindness is a usually a genetic (hereditary) condition (you are born with it). Red/green and blue colour blindness is usually passed down from your parents. The gene which is responsible for the condition is carried on the X chromosome and this is the reason why many more men are affected than women.
There are estimated to be over 250 million colour blind people worldwide. The vast majority of people with a colour vision deficiency have inherited their condition from their mother, who is normally a ‘carrier’ but not colour blind herself. Some people also acquire the condition as a result of long-standing diseases such as:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Some liver diseases
- Almost all eye diseases
The effects of colour vision deficiency can be mild, moderate or severe depending upon the defect. If you have inherited colour blindness your condition will stay the same throughout your life – it won’t get any better or worse.
The retina of the eye has two types of light-sensitive cells called rods and cones. Both are found in the retina which is the layer at the back of your eye which processes images. Rods work in low light conditions to help night vision, but cones work in daylight and are responsible for colour discrimination.
There are three types of cone cells and each type has a different sensitivity to light wavelengths. One type of cone perceives blue light, another perceives green and the third perceives red. When you look at an object, light enters your eye and stimulates the cone cells. Your brain then interprets the signals from the cones cells so that you can see the colour of the object. The red, green and blue cones all work together allowing you to see the whole spectrum of colours. For example, when the red and blue cones are simulated in a certain way you will see the colour purple.
The exact physical causes of colour blindness are still being researched but it is believed that colour blindness is usually caused by faulty cones but sometimes by a fault in the pathway from the cone to the brain.
People with normal colour vision have all three types of cone/pathway working correctly but colour blindness occurs when one or more of the cone types are faulty. For example, if the red cone is faulty you won’t be able to see colours containing red clearly. Most people with colour blindness can’t distinguish certain shades of red and green.
Treatment & Management
There is currently no treatment for colour blindness. Colour filters or contact lenses can be used in some situations to enhance the brightness between some colours and these are occasionally used in the workplace, but many colour blind people find these actually confuse them further rather than help.″The American Optometric Association reports a contact lens on one eye can increase the ability to differentiate between colors, though nothing can make you truly see the deficient color.″ Optometrists can supply colored spectacle lenses or a single red-tint contact lens to wear on the non-dominant eye, but although this may improve discrimination of some colors, it can make other colors more difficult to distinguish. A 1981 review of various studies to evaluate the effect of the X-chrom contact lens concluded that, while the lens may allow the wearer to achieve a better score on certain color vision tests, it did not correct color vision in the natural environment.
The GNOME desktop environment provides colorblind accessibility using the gnome-mag and the libcolorblind software. Using a gnome applet, the user may switch a color filter on and off, choosing from a set of possible color transformations that will displace the colors in order to disambiguate them. The software enables, for instance, a colorblind person to see the numbers in the Ishihara test.
Many applications for iPhone and iPad have been developed to help colorblind people to view the colors in a better way. Many applications launch a sort of simulation of colorblind vision to make normal-view people understand how the color-blinds see the world. Others allow a correction of the image grabbed from the camera with a special "daltonizer" algorithm.
Lenses that filter certain wavelengths of light can allow people suffering from a cone anomaly, but not dichromacy, to see a better spectrum of colors, especially those with classic "red/green" color blindness. They work by notching out wavelengths that strongly stimulate both red and green cones in a deuter- or protanomalous person, improving the distinction between the two cones' signals. As of 2013, sunglasses that enhance colors for many colorblind people are available commercially.
There is hope on the horizon for a ‘cure’ for inherited colour vision deficiency using gene technology – for more information visit www.genevolve.com. This will involve injecting genetic material into the eye so is not for the faint-hearted! At the moment there have been no trials on humans but the process has been proved to work in monkeys.
For acquired colour vision deficiency, once the cause has been established and treated, your vision may return to normal.