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A Cure for Colorblindness

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Photo composite by Spencer Millsap via BSC Photography / Flickr

For all of the qualities that differentiate humans—how we look, where we live, how we speak—one that gets decidedly little attention is how we see. Vision is a binary system: You either have it or don’t. How we see, especially colors, is little more than cocktail party conversation. I should know. Sometime around age six a doctor showed me a series of cards with dots on them. Based on my answers, he told my mom I was colorblind. All I remember is later pointing to the lollipop I wanted without naming its color.

Colorblindness is a result of cones. Most people have green, blue, and red cones in their eyes that let them see those colors (other colors are iterations of the three; yellow, for example is green without blue). There are several different kinds of colorblindness, but the most prominent one, red-green colorblindness, happens when people lack the red cone, only allowing them to see green and blue. Around ten percent of males have that condition. The reason it affects so few women can be explained by the gender differences in chromosomes and recessive genes.

It’s not as complicated as sounds. One researcher at the University of Washington wants to make it even simpler. Specifically, he thinks he has a cure. Ophthalmologist Jay Neitz was able to manipulate the green cones of squirrel monkeys and turn them into red cones. Problem solved. A handful of monkeys now have significantly better color vision. Imagine waking up from that surgery and realizing, in an instant, all that’s been in front of your eyes and you’ve never noticed before.

Whether it can be done in humans is the next question, and currently the decision of the Food and Drug Administration, which has the power to approve human testing. The risks when holding small instruments over someone’s eyes are self-evident.

The bigger question may be if the payoffs are worth it. Cures for blindness are within reach and obvious in value. Same with diseases and terminal maladies, where a research advance can change the course of humanity. But is colorblindness the sort of condition that beckons for a cure? As someone affected, I’d say not. About once a month the issue comes up at the office or, again, a cocktail party, leading to the inevitable quiz of what color the curtains are. About once a year I royally step in it by wearing mismatching clothes. Most days it doesn’t even cross my mind what I see. Could the world look better? Sure, but so could lots of things. I accepted years ago that I’d probably never get to be a pilot, and that’s fine by me.