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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 Siciliano first tried the lenses, he could instantly see many more variations in shades of color. "You have to relearn all of the colors with the glasses on," he says. "Someone has to tell you, 'that is red.' You say, 'OK, that's red,' and work from there."

Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was careful to point out limitations of the ColorMax lens coating technique when the agency approved it in November 1999. "The lenses do not help wearers perceive or appreciate colors as people with normal color vision do, but merely add brightness/darkness differences to colors that are otherwise difficult or impossible to distinguish," says an FDA "Talk Paper." The FDA says that any promotion of the lenses as "a way to correct colorblindness" may be "misleading."

Many eye experts are similarly cautious. "The problem is that there is not a lot of information available to judge them," says Jeffrey Weaver, OD, the director of the clinical care group of the American Optometric Association. "I don't have the clinical trial information, although I've asked for it. I'm not going to be convinced of anything until the ColorMax researchers publish a paper on it."

Ophthalmologist Joel Pokorny, PhD, of the University of Chicago's visual sciences department, says he is "open" to the idea of the lenses, "but I don't think you're going to gain much. There is a theoretical possibility that they could improve some discrimination of color in the real world, but it's a trade off. You will lose some discrimination as well. But overall, they could help a little bit."

That little bit of help isn't cheap -- $699 for a pair of adult lenses, $499 for children's glasses. The high price reflects extensive research and development costs, according to the company. Pokorny called the price "way out of line" considering the limited improvements in vision.

Still, some colorblind patients are clearly willing to give the lenses a try. Some people need to distinguish among colors for their jobs, he said, while others "are motivated by simply being able to do better color matching of their clothes."

The co-author of two books, Jim Dawson is a former MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow and science writing fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. He also has written for the Minneapolis Start Tribune.

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