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New Look for the Colorblind

While a new type of eyeglass lens won't bring a full rainbow of hues to the eyes of the colorblind, it may help some enjoy a more colorful life.

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When optometrist Frank Siciliano, OD, first saw an advertisement for ColorMax eyeglass lenses, he took more than a professional interest. Siciliano, who runs the Belmont Eye Clinic in Youngstown, Ohio, is colorblind himself and knows the frustration of not being able to see the world in full, brilliant color.

In September 1999 he contacted Color Vision Technologies Inc., the Tustin, Calif., company that developed the lenses, and became one of the first optometrists to both wear and prescribe them to improve his red-green colorblindness.

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"There is no question they work," he says. "They are like wearing sunglasses, but they enhance reds. They brighten and lighten the shades you now see as dark and washed out. And the problem with greens is they aren't dark enough. With the lenses, the greens are much darker and you can see contrasts."

By slipping on eyeglass lenses with a unique coating that "fine tunes" the light entering the eyes, many of the 12 million colorblind people in the United States may, for the first time, be able to improve their ability to perceive some colors. James Bailey, OD, PhD, a member of ColorMax's science advisory board and a faculty member at the Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton, emphasizes that the new lens coating is not a cure for colorblindness. He calls it "an optical and therapeutic aid that helps [some colorblind people] better use what vision they have."

"Anybody who works with surface colors, such as electricians, assemblers of color-coded parts, cooks who have to judge when meat is done, or aviators reading radar screens, might be helped with these lenses," says Bailey. Although they are only available for people suffering from red-green colorblindness, that represents 80% of those who have color vision problems.

Colorblindness, or more accurately color vision deficiency, mostly affects men and tends to run in families. As many as one in 12 men has some degree of this condition, as compared to about one in every 250 women. Besides difficulty with red-green perception, some people have other color vision problems, such an inability to distinguish yellows from blues. In very rare cases, a person may be truly colorblind and see only shades of black and white.

The ColorMax lenses work by shifting the wavelengths of the light entering the eye towards the longer end of the visible spectrum, Bailey says, making it easier for the eye to distinguish between the "warm" colors -- reds, yellows, and oranges. However, the wavelengths of colors at the shorter end of the spectrum -- blues and purples -- are also shifted. These may actually become slightly harder to distinguish. Greens fall in the middle and are less noticeably affected. The result is not "normal" vision, but an enhanced contrast between colors.

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