Color-Filtering Lenses: Better Reading for Dyslexics?

Do tinted lenses improve the eye-brain connection for dyslexics?

ByJANE E. ALLEN, ABC News Medical Unit
November 28, 2011, 9:18 PM

Nov. 30, 2011— -- Specially tinted lenses originally developed for color blindness are helping some U.S. dyslexics read faster and see words more clearly, confirming the claims of the lenses' British inventor and the company that started selling them here in September.

As soon as Max Klinger, a Miami first-grader recently diagnosed with dyslexia, got glasses with the special lenses, "all he wanted to do is read," his mother Michelle Klinger said. "He told me the letters stopped moving; they stopped popping out for him. He went from a child who hated reading to asking, 'Can we go buy chapter books?'"

Although Max, 6, has worn the lenses only a month, "I see a huge difference," his mother said Tuesday. "His behavior is completely different. I see a confident child, excited to go to school, excited to read. I attribute it to the glasses. That's the only change we've made."

Optician and researcher David Harris began developing the colored lenses in England in the 1980s for the 1 in 10 people with some degree of color blindness. However, he found that by altering the wavelength of light that reaches the eye, the tinted lenses reduced visual distortions that make reading a chore for many people with dyslexia, a learning disability often linked to poor academic performance. On his website, Harris says the lenses can help some of the 1 in 5 people with reading disorders, especially the 74 percent of dyslexia sufferers with visual distortions.

ChromaGen Vision lenses, available as prescription contacts or eyeglasses that resemble gray-tinted sunglasses, incorporate combinations of 16 color filters. Since the company launched its U.S. sales campaign in September, about 100 eye specialists in 30 states have been dispensing them, said ChromaGen Vision CEO Ted Edwards Jr. Certified providers, who have undergone about an hour of online training and paid $1,500 for kits to test the lenses on patients, have prescribed them to about 500 U.S. patients so far.

Insurance plans don't cover eyewear with the ChromaGen lenses. Glasses typically run $700 to $1,000; tinted contact lenses "about half that," said company spokeswoman Nicole Cottrill. The screening exam costs $50 to $150. Several doctors will waive that fee for patients not helped by the lenses, Cottrill said.

Patient anecdotes have been the strongest driver of sales for ChromaGen Vision website, based in Kennett Square, Pa. Many U.S. optometrists and ophthalmologists remain skeptical about a visual solution for a complicated disorder that many experts maintain is more neurological than eye-related and is often hard to differentiate from other disorders. Some also cite the lack of peer-reviewed studies establishing ChromaGen lenses' effectiveness.

During a diagnostic exam, patients are asked to read aloud from a page of words printed in black on a white background. Eye doctors use trial-and-error to determine which combination of color filters – a different color for each eye – improves the patients' reading speed and number of errors.

Mike Berta, 39, of Billings, Mont., made a special trip to Philadelphia with his two dyslexic sons to see Harris nearly five years ago and was so pleased after Harris fitted all three of them with tinted glasses that he's become an independent rep in four states. ChromaGen lenses haven't been an automatic sell, he said. "I have quite a few docs that are really taking a hard look at it. A lot of them don't believe in it. That's been the tough part of it--getting them to have some of their patients come in and get them tested."

Enthusiasm Among The Tested

When Harris tested Maxwell Berta, now a 19-year-old college student, and Sam Berta, now a 14-year-old eighth grader, "it was just very emotional," their father said. When Maxwell first put on the lenses, "he told me that was the first time he ever looked at a sheet of paper where the words didn't fall off the page."

Belinda Ewing, 48, of Meeker, Okla., informed she was dyslexic around age 7, was placed in special ed classes and told "there was nothing for it." Her long-term boyfriend Ken Danforth, 61, says that her dyslexia was so bad when the two met that "she even spoke some words backwards." A friend referred her to an optometrist in Shawnee, Okla., who worked with ChromaGen lenses.

"When she put the glasses on, she read about five times as much as when she didn't have the glasses on," Danforth said. They lenses have made Ewing comfortable reading in public and "able to participate more in life, too." Because she and Danforth are on disability, the friend arranged for Ewing to get the glasses free as "a favor," Danforth said.

With such testimonials, ChromaGen's Edwards downplayed the need for scientific studies to establish the lenses' effectiveness. When they work, he said, the effect "is immediate. We have 25,000 people in the UK wearing these things for 10 years."

However, an optometrist who recently completed a U.S. pilot study of the lenses to improve reading speed among youngsters with documented reading disorders, said he cannot explain the mechanism by which the lenses improve reading, although they're thought to alter the speed at which the brain processes visual signals. "Even if we have proof of the effectiveness of the lens, we're not going to completely understand the physiology of how it works," said Dr. Mitchell M. Scheiman, director of pediatric and binocular vision programs at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in West Chester, Pa. Edwards said the FDA is reviewing protocols for a larger study at the college to establish the lenses' value specifically for dyslexia.

In the single published, peer-reviewed U.S. study to date, Harris and a colleague tested the tinted lenses against placebo lenses among 47 patients, 41 with distortion while reading. Patients with reading distortion had "a significant increase" in their reading rate, the authors reported in the October 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Optometric Association. Harris, who continues investigating new uses of the lenses disorders such as multiple sclerosis, currently runs The Harris Foundation in Kent, England, which since 2009 has provided the filtered lenses free to disadvantaged children.

Another approach to making reading easier for dyslexics involves altering what's on the page. Christian Boer, a dyslexic Dutch graphic artist, has developed Dyslexie, a font that slightly alters the appearance of letters to make them more readable. It's among several special fonts for dyslexic patients, including Lexia readable and Gill Dyslexic.

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