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Is color blindness caused by genetics?

Color blindness, also known as color vision deficiency, is the decreased ability to see color or differences between colors. It affects a significant percentage of the population and is one of the most common genetic disorders. But what exactly causes color blindness and is it entirely genetic? Let’s take a closer look.

What is color blindness?

Normal human color vision relies on specialized cells in the retina called cones. There are three types of cones that are each responsible for detecting different wavelengths of light that our brain interprets as red, green or blue. Color blindness occurs when one or more of these cone types is absent or not functioning properly.

The most common types of color blindness are:

  • Red-green color blindness – caused by abnormal green or red cones. This makes it hard to distinguish between reds, greens, browns and oranges.
  • Blue-yellow color blindness – caused by abnormal blue cones and makes it difficult to tell the difference between blues and yellows.
  • Complete color blindness (achromatopsia) – very rare and causes an inability to see any colors, only shades of gray.

Color blindness affects color perception but does not affect actual visual acuity. It is typically a genetic condition and is much more prevalent in men than women.

Genetic causes of color blindness

The most common cause of color blindness is a genetic mutation that disrupts the normal function of the cone cells. The genes involved in the production of cone cells are located on the X chromosome. That’s why color blindness is an X-linked genetic disorder and is much more common in men.

Men only have one X chromosome, so a mutation in the gene for cone cells often causes color blindness. Women have two X chromosomes, so even if one X chromosome carries the mutated gene, the second X chromosome can compensate to allow for normal color vision. However, women can still be carriers of color blindness as a recessive trait and pass the genes on to their children.

The specific genetic mutations that cause the most common types of red-green color blindness are as follows:

  • Protanopia – caused by mutations in the OPN1LW gene that codes for red cones.
  • Deuteranopia – caused by mutations in the OPN1MW gene for green cones.
  • Tritanopia – caused by mutations in the OPN1SW gene for blue cones.

These genetic changes prevent the cone cells from functioning normally and being able to detect specific wavelengths of light.

Other potential causes

Although genetics are by far the most common cause of color blindness, there are some other potential causes:

  • Damage or disease affecting the eyes or optic nerves – Conditions like glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy or optic nerve damage can acquire red-green color blindness.
  • Medications – Certain drugs like digoxin, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are toxic to cone cells and can induce color blindness.
  • Physical trauma – Injury directly to the occipital lobe of the brain where visual information is processed can very rarely cause acquired color blindness.
  • Aging – our color perception can decrease slightly as we get older due to yellowing of the lenses and other age-related eye changes.

However, these non-genetic causes only account for a very small percentage of all color blindness cases. The vast majority are due to inherited genetic mutations.

Prevalence and inheritance patterns

It’s estimated that about 1 in 12 men (8%) and 1 in 200 women have some type of color vision deficiency. The table below outlines the prevalence among populations for the most common types:

Type Prevalence
Protanomaly (red deficiency) 1% of men
Deuteranomaly (green deficiency) 5% of men
Tritanomaly (blue deficiency) 0.01% of population

Color blindness is inherited through X-linked recessive inheritance. This results in some notable patterns:

  • Men are much more frequently affected than women
  • Women are usually just carriers rather than being color blind themselves
  • If a man is color blind, none of his sons will inherit normal color vision from him
  • If a woman is a carrier, there is a 50% chance her sons will be color blind and 50% chance her daughters will be carriers
  • Two color blind parents will always have color blind male children

This X-linked inheritance and the relative commonness of mutations in cone cell genes explain why color blindness is one of the most prevalent genetic disorders worldwide.

Diagnosis of color blindness

Color blindness is usually first detected in childhood when a child has difficulty identifying colors correctly. Several screening tests can help diagnose color blindness:

  • Ishihara color plates – Plates with a circle of dots appearing as a number or shape to people with normal color vision but invisible to people with red-green color blindness.
  • Farnsworth D-15 test – Arrangement of 15 colored caps in order of hue to detect inability to distinguish certain colors.
  • Anomaloscopy – Matching spectral lights to detect abnormal cone functioning.
  • Genetic testing – Identifying mutations in genes for cone cell production.

These tests can determine the type of color vision deficiency and its severity. They can also distinguish between inherited color blindness versus acquired color blindness later in life due to disease or injury.

Potential complications

Color blindness is not debilitating and the majority of people with the condition adapt and live normal lives. However, there can be some challenges associated with color blindness such as:

  • Difficulty reading colored graphs, charts or maps
  • Problems discerning information conveyed through color-coded systems
  • Inability to fully enjoy the visual arts or nature
  • Hazards from inability to identify colored warning signs
  • Limitations on career options requiring normal color vision like pilots or electricians

Some studies have also found that color blindness may slow down reading speed and comprehension in childhood when learning colors. So while not generally a major disability, color blindness can impact certain activities and quality of life.

Treatment options

Currently there is no cure for genetically inherited color blindness. However, there are some adaptive tools and techniques that can help mitigate the challenges of color blindness:

  • Color identifier apps – Applications that can scan objects and identify their color for the user.
  • Colored filters – Tinted glasses or contact lenses that can increase contrast between certain colors.
  • Behavioral training – Occupational therapist guidance on adapting to color blindness.
  • Gene therapy – Research into using viruses to deliver normal cone genes to the retina holds future promise.

While none of these return complete normal color vision, they can help improve color discrimination. Individuals with color blindness find ways to adapt their environments and activities to navigate their condition.


In summary, color blindness is overwhelmingly caused by genetic mutations affecting cone cells in the retina. X-linked recessive inheritance leads to a much higher prevalence in men compared to women. While sometimes challenging, most color blind individuals adapt well and lead perfectly normal lives. Current treatment options aim to assist with environment modification and color discrimination training rather than correcting the underlying genetic defects. Continuing research and emerging gene therapies may one day make it possible to cure inherited color blindness.