Glass research helps colorblind people see true colors for the first time

Published on April 18th, 2017 | By: Faye Oney

Research discoveries can sometimes have an emotional impact.

Imagine seeing a world in shades of gray. Or maybe just two or three colors—or even a dull brown.

That’s what nearly 300 million people see when they wake up every morning. According to the National Eye Institute, 8% of men and 0.5% of women have the most common form of color blindness, which is red-green colorblindness. This mild disability, also known as color vision deficiency (CVD), is inherited—men are more likely to be colorblind than women because the gene for the trait is on the X chromosome.

For a majority of people with CVD, however, their “color-challenged” days may be over. EnChroma, a company started by a glass scientist, specializes in making eyeglasses that allow people who are colorblind to see actual colors.

“Ninety-nine percent of all color deficiencies have something to do with the red-green signal,” Don McPherson, chief scientist and EnChroma’s co-founder, explains in a video interview on the company’s website.

Normal eyes can view red, green, and blue photopigments—three colors that are found in millions of cone cells contained in the retina. Each photopigment has a different sensitivity to specific light wavelengths. CVD results when red and green cones overlap more than normal, causing distinct hues to become indistinguishable.

People with CVD are unable to work in many types of jobs—such as airline pilots, emergency first-responders, occupational athletes, and electricians, EnChroma’s director of marketing Kent Streeb wrote in an email.

Safety is also a concern, as red and green traffic lights and brake lights can be indistinguishable when driving. Other problems can include social and learning issues (mismatched clothing, color-coded geography maps) and just living a full life, like watching a sunset or appreciating a child’s artwork—things many of us may take for granted.

An accidental discovery

McPherson, an Alfred University graduate and glass scientist, initially developed special glasses for eye doctors to wear while performing laser surgery. After discovering the doctors were taking the glasses home for personal use, he started wearing them as sunglasses.

When a friend, who happened to be colorblind, asked to borrow the sunglasses, he was suddenly able to see colors for the first time. That incident led McPherson to turn his efforts toward research to develop glasses for the colorblind.

McPherson, together with Andy Schmeder, a mathematician and the company’s CEO, received a grant from the National Institutes of Health and created a lens with a filter that separates the overlap of red and green cones.

Although the company emphasizes its glasses aren’t a cure for CVD, Enchroma has helped nearly 65,000 customers see a normal color-filled world. The videos the company asks its customers to send are a testament to the success and the impact its glasses have on its customers.

EnChroma is currently developing a contact lens version of its glasses. McPherson says the impact of the glasses has been emotional. “It’s overwhelming to see something that we’ve created go out into the world and have such a big impact. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”


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