New glasses are advertising an improvement in color vision for people with common forms of red-green colorblindness. You may even have seen emotional, viral videos of people trying these glasses on for the first time. But how well do colorblindness-correcting glasses really work?
Inherited colorblindness — also called color vision deficiency — has no cure today. But for some people with milder forms of red-green colorblindness, specially formulated color-correcting eyeglasses may improve contrast between some colors. The results vary depending on the type and extent of a person’s color vision deficiency.
Can you fix colorblindness with glasses?
Colorblindness glasses change what the people who wear them see, enhancing the distinction between red and green, explains Ivan Schwab, MD, professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis. But the experience will vary widely among individuals, and these glasses don’t give people a true equivalent of natural color vision.
Genetic colorblindness is caused by an absence of, or problem in the function of, one or more of the three types of color-sensing cone photoreceptors in the retina. People who have difficulty detecting green light (deuteranomaly) or red light (protanomaly) experience an overlap between some of the light wavelengths that the brain interprets as red or green color.
"Colorblindness glasses are made with certain minerals to absorb and filter out some of the wavelengths between green and red that could confuse the brain," Dr. Schwab says.
According to Dr. Schwab, some of the light coming through the glasses is blocked so that the remaining red and green light wavelengths don’t overlap as much. With less color overlap, the brain gets a clearer signal to help distinguish between the problem colors. One of the most popular kinds of these glasses are made by EnChroma.
Colorblindness-correcting glasses will not change color perception for people whose deficiency is caused by a complete absence of red or green photoreceptors. And the positive effects of the glasses last only as long as they are being worn. The glasses don't in any way modify a person's photoreceptors, optic nerves or visual cortex to fix colorblindness.
"Color perception requires a complete set of optimally functioning equipment, and glasses will not replace or repair missing or broken mechanisms," says Dr. Schwab.
Three things you should know before buying colorblind glasses
If you have colorblindness, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Colorblindness glasses might worsen night vision.
Because they reduce the amount of light getting to the eye, it might not be a good idea to wear colorblindness-correcting glasses at night. Reducing the amount of light getting into the eye might especially be a problem for people who have other eye conditions such as cataracts or macular degeneration. EnChroma, the manufacturer, warns against using the glasses while driving. The company offers an indoor collection that blocks less light, for lower-light conditions.
- These glasses are expensive and may not provide the experience you're hope for.
Some colorblindness-correcting glasses cost several hundred dollars. It’s important to set realistic expectations of how much these glasses might change your vision before you buy. Colorblindness-correcting glasses are not typically covered by insurance because colorblindness doesn’t affect a person’s health, so treatment isn’t medically necessary.
- Contrast-enhancing glasses aren't the same as colorblindness glasses.
You may have heard about other devices designed to enhance contrast between colors, such as hunting glasses or contrast-increasing filters for photography. But those products weren’t developed specifically to enhance color vision in people with colorblindness.
Dr. Schwab adds, "The [Enchroma] inventors understood visual physiology, color deficiency, and had a thorough understanding of the physics of optics and optical filters. With that combined knowledge they were able to select rare earth minerals that exactly matched the filter restrictions needed to enrich the glasses to address this color deficiency. It’s an elegant meld of curiosity and education to address a problem."
New treatments may restore color vision in people with colorblindness
Researchers have developed a gene therapy that has successfully allowed red-green colorblind monkeys to see new colors. While promising, this therapy has not yet been tested in humans.