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Artists generally have a better perception of colors than the average person. However, very few can discern colors quite like Concetta Antico, a San Diego-based contemporary artist. That's because this talented painter happens to be a tetrachromat - a select group of people that have the ability to distinguish 100 million nuances of color, an astounding hundred times what a normal person can observe! This means that their world is full of vivid colors that most of us will never experience.
This magical "power" that is believed to be possessed by a mere 1% of the world's population is caused by a mutation of the cone cells, one of the two kinds of photoreceptor cells that are found in the retina of the human eye. Most humans have trichromatic vision. This means that they possess three cones, each processing the different wavelengths of light - short, medium and long. Tetrachromats have the same three and a bonus one, which enables them to pick up color subtleties that people with normal eyesight are unable to.
What's interesting about this mutation is that it is not obvious even to those that possess it. That's because their brain is wired the same way as that of a person with normal vision, and it takes practice to train it to receive this additional color information. Researchers believe that if tetrachromats are not exposed to a variety of colors whilst still young, they may never be able to reach their full visual spectrum potential.
Fortunately, such was not the case for Antico, who was identified as a tetrachromat by scientists just two years ago. The artist who took up painting at the age of seven, has been fascinated with color since she was five-years-old. This early and constant exposure to colors is the reason her brain has been trained to take full advantage of her mutation, a process researchers call neuroplasticity training.
Since genes for color vision are connected to X chromosomes, experts initially speculated that it may be a mutation that only women could have, given that the female body has two X chromosomes. But further research has led them to conclude that men too can be tetrachromats!
However, that is as far as they have been able to get with their research. Their lack of knowledge stems from the fact that it is hard to test what tetrachromats are observing. For example, while Kimberly Jameson, a cognitive scientist who is researching Antico's genes believes that her fourth cone absorbs wavelengths that are "reddish-orangey-yellow", she is unable to verify it. That's because the scientist does not have the tests that can be calibrated to this specific wavelength. Also, the way the fourth cone functions in different tetrachromats can vary widely. This means that scientists need a number of subjects to really understand the color identification process - a difficult task given how hard it is to identify people with this condition.
Antico, who has offered herself for testing hopes that the continued research will bring some answers to how the genetic mutation affects color vision. The findings are extremely important to her given that while her world is filled with extra color, her daughter's is the exact opposite. That's because the mutation in the young girl's X chromosomes have caused her to be color blind. Antico hopes that a better understanding of tetrachromacy and variations in color perception, will allow researchers to help the millions of people who like her daughter, suffer from color deficiency.
Meanwhile, the artist is putting her skills to good use by teaching people suffering from color blindness to paint. Kimberly Jameson is intrigued by the possibility that under Antico's guidance, these students may be able to change their condition by training their brains to learn how to process color. If that works, it may help transform the lives of millions of people who are currently unable to appreciate the beautiful colors that surround them.