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Color Blindness

What is Color Blindness?

Color blindness, or color vision deficiency, in humans is the inability to perceive differences between some or all colors that other people can distinguish. It is most often of genetic nature, but may also occur because of eye, nerve, or brain damage, or due to exposure to certain chemicals. The English chemist John Dalton in 1794 published the first scientific paper on the subject, "Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colours", after the realization of his own color blindness; because of Dalton's work, the condition is sometimes called Daltonism, although this term is now used for a type of color blindness called deuteranopia (see below).

Color blindness is usually classed as a disability; however, in select situations color blind people have advantages over people with normal color vision. Color blind hunters are better at picking out prey against a confusing background, and the military have found that color blind soldiers can sometimes see through camouflage that fools everyone else. Monochromats may have a minor advantage in dark vision, but only in the first five minutes of dark adaptation.

color blindness

The viewable spectrums for people with normal vision and various forms of color blindness.


Color blindness affects a significant number of people, although exact proportions vary among groups. In Australia, for example, it occurs in about 8 percent of males and only about 0.4 percent of females1. Isolated communities with a restricted gene pool sometimes produce high proportions of color blindness, including the less usual types. Examples include rural Finland, Hungary, and some of the Scottish islands.


There are many types of color blindness. The most common variety are hereditary (genetic) photoreceptor disorders, but it is also possible to acquire color blindness through damage to the retina, optic nerve, or higher brain areas. Higher brain areas implicated in color processing include the parvocellular pathway of the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, and visual area V4 of the visual cortex. Acquired color blindness is generally unlike the more typical genetic disorders. For example, it is possible to acquire color blindness only in a portion of the visual field but maintain normal color vision elsewhere. Some forms of acquired color blindness are reversible. Transient color blindness also occurs (very rarely) in the aura of some migraine sufferers.

Classification of Color Deficiencies

The normal human retina contains two kinds of light sensitive cells: the rod cells (active in low light) and the cone cells (active in normal daylight). Normally, there are three kinds of cones, each containing a different pigment. The cones are activated when the pigments absorb light. The absorption spectra of the pigments differ; one is maximally sensitive to short wavelengths, one to medium wavelengths, and the third to long wavelengths (their peak sensitivities are in the blue, yellowish-green, and yellow regions of the spectrum, respectively). It is important to realize that the absorption spectra of all three systems cover much of the visible spectrum, so it is incorrect to refer to them as "blue", "green" and "red" receptors, especially because the "red" receptor actually has its peak sensitivity in the yellow. The sensitivity of normal color vision actually depends on the overlap between the absorption spectra of the three systems: different colors are recognized when the different types of cone are stimulated to different extents. For example, red light stimulates the long wavelength cones much more than either of the others, but the gradual change in hue seen as wavelength reduces is the result of the other two cone systems being increasingly stimulated as well.

rods and cones of the eye

The fovea and foveal pit are where visual acuity and color vision are the best because of the high concentration of cones. Image courtesy of the University of Utah, John A Moran Eye Center, WebVision at www.webvision.med.utah.edu and the Federal Aviation Administratin.

The different kinds of color blindness result from one or more of the different cone systems either not functioning at all, or functioning in an unusual way. When one cone system is compromised, dichromacy results. The most frequent forms of human color blindness result from problems with either the middle or long wavelength sensitive cone systems, and involve difficulties in discriminating reds, yellows, and greens from one another. They are collectively referred to as "red-green color blindness", though the term is an over-simplification and somewhat misleading. Other forms of color blindness are much rarer. They include problems in discriminating blues from yellows, and the rarest forms of all, complete color blindness or monochromacy, where one cannot distinguish any color from grey, as in a black-and-white movie or photograph.

Red-green Color Blindness

There are several types of red-green color blindness:

views of different color blindnesses
  • Protanopia » Lacking the long-wavelength sensitive retinal cones, those with this condition are unable to distinguish between colors in the green-yellow-red section of the spectrum. They have a neutral point at a wavelength of 492 nm—that is, they cannot discriminate light of this wavelength from white. Their sensitivity to light in the orange and red part of the spectrum is also reduced. Very few people have been found who have one normal eye and one protanopic eye. These unilateral dichromats report that with only their protanopic eye open, they see wavelengths below the neutral point as blue and those above it as yellow. This is a rare form of color blindness.
  • Deuteranopia » Lacking the medium-wavelength cones, those affected are again unable to distinguish between colors in the green-yellow-red section of the spectrum. Their neutral point is at a slightly longer wavelength, 498 nm. This is one of the rarer forms of colorblindness making up about 1% of the male population, also known as Daltonism after John Dalton. (Dalton's diagnosis was confirmed as deuteranopia in 1995, some 150 years after his death, by DNA analysis of his preserved eyeball.) Deuteranopic unilateral dichromats report that with only their deuteranopic eye open, they see wavelengths below the neutral point as blue and those above it as yellow.
  • Protanomaly » Having a mutated form of the long-wavelength pigment, whose peak sensitivity is at a shorter wavelength than in the normal retina, protanomalous individuals are less sensitive to red light than normal. This means that they are less able to discriminate colors, and they do not see mixed lights as having the same colors as normal observers. They also suffer from a darkening of the red end of the spectrum. This causes reds to reduce in intensity to the point where they can be mistaken for black. Protanomaly is a fairly rare form of color blindness, making up about 1% of the male population.
  • Deuteranomaly » Having a mutated form of the medium-wavelength pigment. The medium-wavelength pigment is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum resulting in a reduction in sensitivity to the green area of the spectrum. Unlike protanomaly the intensity of colors is unchanged. This is the most common form of color blindness, making up about 6% of the male population.

Blue-Yellow Color Blindness

Color blindness involving the inactivation of the short-wavelength sensitive cone system (whose absorption spectrum peaks in the bluish-violet) is called tritanopia or, loosely, blue-yellow color blindness. Mutation of the short-wavelength sensitive cones is called tritanomaly. Tritanopia is equally distributed among males and females, because the gene coding for the short-wavelength receptor is located on chromosome 7 and therefore not sex-linked, but since mutations in both copies are required, it is less frequently apparent.


Complete inability to distinguish any colors is called monochromacy. It occurs in three forms:

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  • Cone monochromacy » where only a single cone system appears to be functioning, so that no colors can be distinguished, but vision is otherwise more or less normal.
  • Achromatopsia or rod monochromacy » where the retina contains no cone cells, so that in addition to the absence of color discrimination, vision in lights of normal intensity is difficult. While normally rare, achromatopsia is very common on the island of Pingelap, a part of the Pohnpei state, Federated States of Micronesia, where it is called maskun: about 1/12 of the population there has it. The island was devastated by a storm in the 18th century, and one of the few male survivors carried a gene for achromatopsia; the population is now several thousand, of whom about 30% carry this gene.
  • Color agnosia or "central achromatopsia" » where the person can not perceive colors, even though the eyes are capable of distinguishing them. Some sources do not consider this to be true color blindness, because the failure is of perception, not of vision. It is a form of visual agnosia.


The Ishihara color test, which consists of a series of pictures of colored spots, is the test most often used to diagnose red-green color deficiencies. A figure (usually one or more Arabic digits) is embedded in the picture as a number of spots in a slightly different color, and can be seen with normal color vision, but not with a particular color defect. The full set of tests has a variety of figure/background color combinations, and enable diagnosis of which particular visual defect is present. The anomaloscope, described above, is also used in diagnosing anomalous trichromacy.

Ishihara color test

Ishihara color test: A person with color blindness could still see the number 12 in (A), but could not see the number 7 in (D). A person with red-green colorblindness could not see the number 8 in (C). A person with deuteraopia can see the number 3, and a person with protanopia can see the number 5 in (B), but only someone with no color blindness could clearly see the number 35.

However, the Ishihara color test is criticized for containing only numerals and thus not being useful for young children, who have not yet learned to use numerals. It is often stated that it is important to identify these problems as soon as possible and explain them to the children to prevent possible problems and psychological traumas. For this reason, alternative color vision tests were developed using only symbols (square, circle, car).

Most clinical tests are designed to be fast, simple, and effective at identifying broad categories of color blindness. In academic studies of color blindness, on the other hand, there is more interest in developing flexible tests to collect thorough datasets, identify copunctal points, and measure just noticeable differences.

Treatment and Management

There is generally no treatment to cure color deficiencies, however, certain types of tinted filters and contact lenses may help an individual to distinguish different colors better. Additionally, software has been developed to assist those with visual color difficulties.

Source: Wikipedia » Color Blindness

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