15.08.2017

How A Game Of Catch With A Poodle Changed How We Think Of Colour Blindness

One fateful day in the 1980s, Jay Neitz was playing catch with his teacup Poodle Retina." As he was watching his dog run back and forth, Jay noticed that Retina had trouble seeing his orange ball whenever it landed on the grass. Even though Jay Neitz and his wife Maureen could easily spot the ball, Retina just passed it by.

Thus began the Neitzs' quest to better understand the nature of dog vision. Luckily for them, Jay and Maureen were both biochemistry PhD candidates in UC Santa Barbara at the time. This made it possible for the couple to book a lab appointment at the university and devise a professional study.

For this study, Jay made a series of different coloured panels that he projected onto a screen. Jay and Maureen trained Retina and two Italian Greyhounds to touch the screen whenever they noticed the colour changed. When a dog correctly identified a shift in colour, Jay gave him/her a treat.

Maureen said it took around six months to train all of the dogs to do the tests properly. At first, Jay and Maureen used peanut butter to help the dogs understand when to place their nose on the screen. Once the dogs got the hang of it, Jay removed the peanut butter from the test.
After months of research, Jay and Maureen compiled their data and published the essay "Colour vision in the dog." This article was first published in 1989 in the journal Visual Neuroscience. Contrary to popular opinion, this article argued that dogs' vision is more like a colourblind person rather than white-black vision.

Right after this article was released, dozens of companies and government agencies started contacting Jay and Maureen. The most prominent phone call Jay ever received was from the U.S. Army. Generals in the U.S. Army wanted to know whether or not they could give dogs infrared vision goggles to distinguish bombs in enemy territory.

Jay Neitz told reporters that the most important finding in this 1989 paper was that colour vision is much more complex than previously known, both in animals and in humans." He went on to theorize that humans must have evolved the ability to distinguish colours in the past to better pick out high-calorie foods.

Ever since that first study, Jay and Maureen have been hard at work developing gene therapies for colour blindness. Today, the couple works at the University of Washington's ophthalmology department.

Instead of researching dogs, Maureen says she's much more interested in male squirrel monkeys nowadays. The main reason both Maureen and Jay are looking into these animals is because male squirrel monkeys can only see blue and yellow.

Jay also upgraded the colour testing system they use on animals. This new test is based on the standardized Cambridge colour test and uses a total of 16 colours.

In 2009, these researchers made headlines after they successfully cured colour blindness in male squirrel monkeys using a human gene. There's great hope that this gene therapy technique might be duplicated in humans in the near future.


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