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Health risks associated with eye colour are an emerging area of interest in the scientific community, but much of the results yielded so far have been inconclusive. For their latest research, scientists set out to determine whether the colour-determining genes regulate retinal health independent of their role in pigment formation. Their findings suggest that the genes are a critical determinant of retinal health and other neurodegenerative illness.
The latest findings show that certain metabolites involved in eye colour are damaging to the retina, with the degree of degeneration determined by imbalances between the metabolites and other protective metabolic pathways in the eye.
Elisabeth Knust, who supervised the study, noted: “This work shows that the Kynurenine pathway is important not only in pigment formation but that the level of individual metabolites fulfils important roles in maintaining retinal health.”
The findings suggest that a person’s eye colour genes could be a critical component of their retinal health.
Metabolic pathways consist of a series of biochemical reactions in cells that convert a starting component into other products.
Several human diseases including retinal or neurodegenerative diseases are associated with imbalances in metabolic pathways.
Scientists now know that four genes known to control eye colour are also essential for the health of retinal tissue.
In previous research, scientists have found that brown-eyed individuals have a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of blindness in older adults.
The Journal of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science drew this conclusion in 2015.
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The journal reported: “Previous studies have […] suggested that lighter iris colour increases associated age-macular degeneration risk.
“That is, individuals with blue iris colour were more inclined to have a higher prevalence and stronger likelihood of progression to late age-macular degeneration than those with darker iris colour.”
The findings in question were detailed in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology.
A study was performed on 171 participants aged between 52 and 93 years, who were identified as having early age-macular degeneration features.
In total, 53 people in the sample showed signs of AMD progression.
“Participants with light iris colour had twofold the risk of AMD progression of those with dark or intermediate iris colours,” noted the study authors.
Another body of research in 2011, suggested that people with a combination of blue eyes and fair skin were at higher risk of type 1 diabetes.
Their brown-eyed counterparts have also been found to have a lower risk of hearing loss in loud environments.
Other issues such as drink dependence, Endometriosis, and cataracts have been associated with variations in eye colour.
Everyday Health’s Vision Center states that while there are numerous studies suggesting health risks may be related to the eye, “you really can’t predict health outcomes or quality of vision based on colour alone”.
What has been proven, is that people with blue or light-coloured eyes are more sensitive to light, due to the sparsity of light-absorbing pigments in the eye.
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