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.
"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.
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.