Brain waves reveal disease and colour blindness

A young Sydney researcher hopes to develop a way to diagnose and monitor diseases by analysing how the brain responds to colour.

Mei Ying Boon and her colleagues have developed mathematical techniques with which they can objectively analyse recordings of brain waves to determine how people respond to fine differences in colour.

“Eye diseases such as glaucoma can alter people’s ability to perceive colour,” says Mei Boon, a University of New South Wales PhD student. “Therefore, studying brain activity could be a useful way to diagnose and monitor diseases, and the conditions that affect colour vision pathways in the brain.”

Twenty two adult volunteers had their brain waves recorded while they viewed computer patterns composed of two different shades. The two colours ranged from very different (red and green) to very similar. If the viewer couldn’t distinguish the colours, then the pattern was invisible to them.

When the volunteers could see the pattern, their brain waves included a distinctively patterned wave. The researchers measured this signal three different ways and found it could be used to reveal the finest colour discriminations that individuals can make. The result: a potential visual health test.

The research has uses for healthy people too.

“People’s natural ability to make fine distinctions between colours varies in the population,” says Mei who published her findings with her UNSW co-authors, Dr Catherine Suttle and Associate Professor Bruce Henry. “For example, we’ve all met people who may have lived most of their lives unaware that they mix up colours, or wear colours that clash.

“For most of us, this isn’t a big deal but for those with poor colour discrimination it can make apparently simple tasks difficult. For example, perceiving colours affects our ability to carry out daily tasks such as food preparation-which is the ripe tomato?-or to interpret signals such as traffic lights,” says Mei.

“More seriously, poor colour vision can be a safety issue for fire-fighters, electricians and other professions. The ability to test objectively people’s natural perception of fine colour discrimination could provide them with valuable information about their natural ability.”

Mei Ying Boon is one of 16 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to school students and the general public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program hosted by the Melbourne Museum and sponsored by the Federal and Victorian governments, New Scientist, The Australian and Quantum Communications Victoria.  One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

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