Achromatopsia (ACHM, also known as total color blindness), is a medical syndrome that exhibits symptoms relating to at least five conditions. The term may refer to acquired conditions such as cerebral achromatopsia, also known as color agnosia, but it typically refers to an autosomal recessive congenital color vision condition, the inability to perceive color and to achieve satisfactory visual acuity at high light levels (typically exterior daylight). The syndrome is also present in an incomplete form which is more properly defined as dyschromatopsia. It is estimated to affect 1 in 40,000 live births worldwide.
There is some discussion as to whether achromats can see color or not. As illustrated in The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks, some achromats cannot see color, only black, white, and shades of grey. With five different genes currently known to cause similar symptoms, it may be that some do see marginal levels of color differentiation due to different gene characteristics. With such small sample sizes and low response rates, it is difficult to accurately diagnose the 'typical achromatic conditions'. If the light level during testing is optimized for them, they may achieve corrected visual acuity of 20/100 to 20/150 at lower light levels, regardless of the absence of color. One common trait is hemeralopia or blindness in full sun. In patients with achromatopsia, the cone system and fibres carrying color information remain intact. This indicates that the mechanism used to construct colors is defective.
The syndrome is frequently noticed first in children around six months of age by their photophobic activity and/or their nystagmus. The nystagmus becomes less noticeable with age but the other symptoms of the syndrome become more relevant as school age approaches. Visual acuity and stability of the eye motions generally improve during the first 6–7 years of life (but remain near 20/200). The congenital forms of the condition are considered stationary and do not worsen with age.
The five symptoms associated with achromatopsia/dyschromatopsia are:
- Amblyopia (reduced visual acuity)
- Hemeralopia (with the subject exhibiting photophobia)
- Iris operating abnormalities
The syndrome of achromatopsia/dyschromatopsia is poorly described in current medical and neuro-ophthalmological texts. It became a common term following the popular book by the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, "The Island of the Colorblind" in 1997. Up to that time most color-blind subjects were described as achromats or achromatopes. Those with a lesser degree of color perception abnormality were described as either protanopes, deuteranopes or tetartanopes (historically tritanopes).
Achromatopsia has also been called rod monochromacy and total congenital color blindness. Individuals with the congenital form of this condition show complete absence of cone cell activity via electroretinography at high light levels. There are at least four genetic causes of congenital ACHM, two of which involve cyclic nucleotide-gated ion channels (ACHM2/ACHM3), a third involves the cone photoreceptor transducin (GNAT2, ACHM4), and the last remains unknown.
Aside from a complete inability to see color, individuals with complete achromatopsia have a number of other ophthalmologic aberrations. Included among these aberrations are greatly decreased visual acuity (<0.1 or 20/200) in daylight, Hemeralopia, nystagmus, and severe photophobia. The fundus of the eye appears completely normal. Also see Pingelap#Color-blindness.
Incomplete achromatopsia ( dyschromatopsia)
In general, symptoms of incomplete achromatopsia are similar to those of complete achromatopsia except in a diminished form. Individuals with incomplete achromatopsia have reduced visual acuity with or without nystagmus or photophobia. Furthermore, these individuals show only partial impairment of cone cell function but again have retained rod cell function.
Acquired achromatopsia/dyschromatopsia is a condition associated with damage to the diencephalon (primarily the thalamus of the mid brain) or the cerebral cortex (the new brain), specifically the fourth visual association area, V4 which receives information from the parvocellular pathway involved in colour processing.
Thalamic achromatopsia/dyschromatopsia is caused by damage to the thalamus; it is most frequently caused by tumor growth since the thalamus is well protected from external damage.
Cerebral achromatopsia is a form of acquired color blindness that is caused by damage to the cerebral cortex of the brain, rather than abnormalities in the cells of the eye's retina. It is most frequently caused by physical trauma, hemorrhage or tumor tissue growth.
The known causes of the congenital forms of achromatopsia are all due to malfunction of the retinal phototransduction pathway. Specifically, this form of ACHM seems to result from the inability of cone cells to properly respond to light input by hyperpolarizing. Known genetic causes of this are mutations in the cone cell cyclic nucleotide-gated ion channels CNGA3 (ACHM2) and CNGB3 (ACHM3) as well as the cone cell transducin, GNAT2 (ACHM4).
A fourth genetic cause (ACHM5, OMIM 613093) was discovered in 2009. It is a mutation of gene PDE6C, located on chromosome locus 10, 10q24. It is estimated that less than 2% of achromatopsias are caused by a mutation in this gene.
The diagnosis will be made by your eye doctor. The affected child may not be able to perform the screening tests to check for color blindness, but the presence of nystagmus, light sensitivity and reduced vision will provide clues essential to the diagnosis.
There is generally no treatment to cure achromatopsia. However, dark red or plum colored filters are very helpful in controlling light sensitivity.
Since 2003, there is a cybernetic device called eyeborg that allows people to perceive color through sound waves. Achromatopsic artist Neil Harbisson was the first to use such a device in early 2004, the eyeborg allowed him to start painting in color by memorizing the sound of each color.
Moreover, there is some research on gene therapy for animals with achromatopsia, with positive results on mice and young dogs, but less effectiveness on older dogs. However, no experiments have been made on humans. There are many challenges to conducting gene therapy on humans. See Gene therapy for color blindness for more details about it.