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Color Blindness Cured By Head Injury, Man Claims

1:43 PM, Jan 19, 2014   |    comments
Photo: CBS News
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Ryan Jaslow, CBS News

A Yakima, Wash. man who says he's been colorblind his whole life claims he can now see more colors than ever following a fall where he hit his head.

"As a 70 year old man I fall quite a lot, as a matter of fact, cause my legs are not strong," Richard Riggs, a violinist and music teacher for the past 45 years, told CBS affiliate KIMA in Yakima, Wash. "I've been colorblind since I was born, and at age 70 I see colors of the rainbow now."
Color blindness is caused by problems with color-sensing pigments in nerve cells called cones, which are found in the back of the eye on a light-sensitive layer of tissue known as the retina. If one pigment is missing, a person may have trouble distinguishing between red and green or blue and yellow or both, according to the National Institutes of Health.

People who are colorblind may also have difficulties differentiating between shades of the same color.

Most color vision troubles are caused by genetic mutations and present at birth, WebMD notes, and those cases that are inherited cannot be treated or corrected.

Other cases can be caused by aging, eye problems like glaucoma, eye injury or side effects from medications including the rheumatoid arthritis drug Plaquenil.

Since Riggs' recent fall, he claims he can spot shades of pinks and pastels, and can't wait to use his newly found senses on an upcoming trip to Hawaii to look at flowers -- and bikinis.

"The old-fashioned Walt Disney slogan was, 'The world is a carousel of color,' I get it now, I'm seeing the world that way," said Riggs.

But can a blow to the head be responsible for reversing an incurable genetic condition?

"This is very implausible," Dr. Scott Brodie, a professor of ophthalmology specializing in medical retina and clinical electrophysiology at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told CBS News.

Brodie, who has no involvement in the man's care, explained that in people who are colorblind since birth, the brain essentially calculates the distribution of color based on the amount of pigments, or absence of pigments, caused by genetic mutations.

People who are colorblind their whole life might not even recognize different shades of color, he added, because over time, the brain has filled in these gaps of missing information. That allows people who are colorblind to have an idea of what "green" looks like, or whether a color is darker or lighter, despite not being able to actually see those colors.

If this man hurt his brain, it might be possible he's now seeing more colors because the brain has filled in these gaps for what he interprets as different colors following the latest injury. Another rare possibility is the brain damage was severe enough to dramatically alter his original perception of colors. 

But, "falling is not going to change your color pigment genes," Brodie said. 

A more common situation tends to be the opposite of Riggs' -- when a person with normal vision has a brain injury and loses their ability to recognize some colors because of damaged cone cells.

A trip to an eye doctor might clear up what's happening, he added.

CBS News

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