Colour-blindness- It’s not just black and white

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Calum Kirk

SciBar on the 21st of March saw BSA volunteer and science writer, Joe Crutwell entertain a packed room with his personal and research experience of Colour-blindness. Joe has more than mere scientific curiosity for the topic, having been diagnosed with red-green colour-blindness at the age of 10. He later had the opportunity to study the condition from a genetic and neuroscience perspective, during his undergraduate and master’s degrees.

Three proteins, collectively called opsins are needed for people to be able to differentiate colours. The instructions for the proteins are found on the sex chromosomes. The position of the instructions mean that the condition occurs far more often in men than in women. Joe went onto explain the different types of colour-blindness and their genetic causes. These range from mild forms of red-green colour-blindness all the way to seeing only in black and white.

Joe led us through his personal journey. It was interesting to hear how colour-blindness is tested for, using Ishihara diagrams (see below). And how the stigma attached to people with colour-blindness in countries like Japan is such that people spend hours learning how to cheat the tests, so as not to be diagnosed. In the UK there are few restrictions on the occupations of people with the conditions, except being in the armed forces or being an electrician. Joe led us through the fascinating world of accidents throughout history that have been blamed on colour-blindness, including a train crash in 1875 and many people jumping traffic lights! These kinds of cases have resulted in a number of countries not allowing people to drive if they are colour-blind.

Ishihara Test

Can you spot the number?

The latest research in colour-blindness has focused on curing or improving the colour vision of those with the condition. Joe was given the opportunity to try on a pair of colour correcting glasses by a scientist running a study at Newcastle University. The study will look at how effective the glasses are, and researchers are currently recruiting colour-blind volunteers. Joe gave us a great insight into the psychology of whether trying on the glasses could actually make the person with colour-blindness feel worse about having the condition, after all it is hard to miss something you have never experienced. The prospect of trying them on raised questions such as ‘Is trying them on going to ruin my life? Will everything seem really dull when I take them off? Despite his reservations Joe plunged in and found that for him, though they made everything brighter and cleared, the effect soon wore off. The suggestion so far has been that while they improve colour perception, they don’t actually make people able to pass the Ishihara test, however we will have to keep an eye on Joe’s blog to find out about the results of the current study!

After having a breather and recharging our beer glasses, Joe fielded lots of questions covering all aspects of the condition, from what it is like to have it as a child when you don’t really know what other people are seeing to how we could use gene editing methods to cure the condition in the future.

Join us for our next SciBar event on the 25th April, where Dr Elizabeth Heidrich, will be telling us about her research on how we can get energy from our waste.

If you or one of your relatives is colourblind and living in the North-East area, contact Cat Pattie at C.E.Pattie1@newcastle.ac.uk or @C_Pattie1 on Twitter if you would like to help further research into the condition.

Joe’s blog can be found at inacrutshell.com

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